A Second Chance and New Vision for Oneonta?

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

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

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

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

First, a look at how we got here.

Before the dams and after the railroads…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The east portal of Oneonta Tunnel shortly after completion in 1916

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

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

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

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

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

Early visitors to Oneonta Gorge in the 1920s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restoration of the Oneonta Tunnel begins in 2006 (ODOT)

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

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

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

Vandalism & Oneonta Gorge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the fire happened in September 2017, changing everything…

The Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering what we lost

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

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

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

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

Historic Oneonta Stairwell in 2008

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

West portal of the restored Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

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

Wood interior of the restored Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

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

East portal of the restored Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

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

East portal approach to the Oneonta Tunnel in 2008

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

A Fresh Start (and Vision)

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

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

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

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

Moqui Cave Museum near Kanab, Utah (Wikipedia)

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

Moqui Cave Museum entrance (TripAdvisor)

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

Moqui Cave Museum interior (TripAdvisor)

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

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

Historic Timberline Lodge entrance door (Wikipedia)

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

Restored Timberline Lodge side entry door (Versatile Wood Products)

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

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

Getting a handle on parking…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking west for inspiration… and operations?

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

Vista House rotunda (TripAdvisor)

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

Vista House interpretive displays and gift shop (TripAdvisor)

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

Vista House interpretive displays (TripAdvisor)

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

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

Focus on Sam Lancaster’s Road?

Samuel Lancaster, the dreamer behind the Columbia River Highway

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

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

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

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

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

The former Mitchel Point Tunnel of many windows (ODOT)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essential reading for any Gorge lover!

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, TJ!

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Tom Kloster • April 2020

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

Yellow paint still marks the old centerline of an abandoned section of the historic Mount Hood Loop highway, nearly covered with more than 60 years of moss and ferns.

(Part 1 of this article introduced the idea of restoring the surviving sections of the old Mount Hood Loop Highway to become part of a world-class cycle tour along this historic route. Part 2 focuses on these surviving historic sections of the old road, from Zigzag on the west side of the mountain to the Sherwood Campground on the east side, and how to bring this vision to reality)

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THE CONCEPT

In the near-century since the original Mount Hood Loop was completed in early 1920s, the old route has gradually been replaced with straighter, faster “modern” highways. In areas outside Mount Hood National Forest, the bypassed sections of the old road are mostly still in use, often serving as local roads. But inside the national forest, from Zigzag to Sherwood Campground, long sections of the old road were simply abandoned, left to revert to nature when new, modern roads were built in the 1950s and 60s. Some bypassed sections are still in use, though mostly forgotten.

This is 1930s-era map (below) shows the original alignment of the Mount Hood Loop highway in red and the approximate location of the modern highway alignments of US 26 and OR 35 superimposed in black:

[click here for a large version of this map]

The concept of reconnecting these forgotten sections of historic road is straightforward, building on the example of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) in the Columbia Gorge. As in the Gorge, places where modern highways on Mount Hood simply abandoned or bypassed the old route, the surviving segments of the old road would be the historic building blocks for creating a new “state trail”, which is simply a paved bicycle and pedestrian path closed to automobiles. 

Sections where the historic route was completely destroyed by modern highways would be reconnected with new trail, like we see in the Gorge, or with protected shoulder lanes on quiet sections of the modern highway in a couple areas.

This map shows the overall concept for restoring the route as the Historic Mount Hood Loop State Trail:

[click here for the 11×17″ JPG version]

[click here for the 11×17″ PDF version]

Segments shown in blue on the concept map are where bypassed sections of the old highway still survive and segments shown in red are where new trails would connect the surviving historic segments. All of the new trail sections are proposed to follow existing forest roads to minimize costs and impacts on the forest. 

The concept map also shows several trailheads along the route where visitors would not only use to access the trail, but would also have trail information and toilets. These trailheads already exist in most cases, with several functioning as winter SnoParks that could be used year-round as part of the new trail concept.

Six Forest Service campgrounds (Tollgate, Camp Creek, Still Creek, Trillium Lake, Robinhood and Sherwood) already exist along the proposed route and two long-forgotten campgrounds (Twin Bridges and Hood River Meadows) are still intact and could easily be reopened as bikepacking-only destinations.

EXPLORING THE ROUTE

The next part of this article explores the scenic and historic highlights of the historic highway in three sections, from Rhododendron on the west side of the mountain to the Sherwood Campground and East Fork Hood River on the east side.

West Section – Rhododendron to Government Camp

The historic bridge over the Little Zigzag River survives, marking the beginning of a gracefully, winding ascent of Laurel Hill along the old loop highway

Beginning at the tiny mountain community of Zigzag, it’s possible to follow a couple bypassed segments of the old loop highway, notably along Faubion Road, but most of this section would follow a new, protected path on US 26 to Rhododendron, where the off-high trail concept begins. 

Part 1 of this article outlined the economic benefits of cycle touring, and by anchoring the west end of the new trail in Rhododendron, this small community would benefit from tourism in a way that speeding winter ski traffic simply doesn’t offer. The gateway trailhead would be located at the east end of Rhododendron, connecting to the Tollgate Campground, the first camping opportunity along the proposed route

The Barlow Road Tollgate near Rhododendron in the 1880s

From Tollgate, the new route would follow the Pioneer Bridle Trail for the next two miles to the Kiwanis Camp Road junction, on US 26. This is a lightly used section of the Pioneer Bridle Trail, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps from Tollgate to Government Camp in the 1930s. This part of the corridor follows the relatively flat valley floor of the Zigzag River, so there is plenty of room for a new trail to run parallel to the Pioneer Bridle Trail, as another option.

Pioneer Bridle Trail east of Tollgate

Once at the Kiwanis Camp Road junction, the new route would share this quiet forest road for the next next couple miles. Kiwanis Camp Road is actually a renamed, surviving section of the old highway and still provides access to the Paradise Park and Hidden Lake trails into the Mount Hood Wilderness. 

The Zigzag River passing through the old Twin Bridges campground site

Along the way, this section of old highway passes the site of the long-abandoned Twin Bridges campground, where a surviving bridge also forms the trailhead for the Paradise Park Trail. This shady old campground is quite beautiful, with the rushing Zigzag River passing through it. It could easily be reopened as a bikepacking-only camping spot along the tour.

Little Zigzag Falls

This operating section of old highway soon ends at the Little Zigzag River and the short spur trail to pretty Little Zigzag Falls. The enormous turnaround here once served as a rock quarry for the original loop highway, and has plenty of room serve as trailhead for the new state trail

From here, the old road begins an ascent of Laurel Hill, one of the most scenic and fascinating sections of the old highway. Large boulders now block the old highway at the historic bridge that crosses the Little Zigzag River, and from there, an abandoned section of the old road begins the traverse of Laurel Hill.

Abandoned historic highway section near the Little Zigzag crossing

This abandoned section of historic road crosses the upper portion of the Pioneer Bridle Trail where an unusual horse tunnel was constructed under the old highway as part of creating the Bridle Trail. It’s hard to imagine enough highway traffic in the 1930s to warrant this structure, but perhaps the trail builders were concerned about speeding Model As surprising visitors crossing the road on horseback? Whatever the reason, the stone bridge/tunnel structure is one of the many surviving gems hidden along the old highway corridor.

Pioneer Bridle Trail tunnel under an abandoned section of the historic loop highway

From the Pioneer Bridle tunnel overcrossing, the old road soon dead-ends at a tall embankment, where modern US 26 cuts across the historic route. The spot where the modern highway was built was once one of the most photographed waysides along the old highway, appearing in dozens of postcards and travel brochures. It was the first good view of the mountain from the old highway as it ascended from the floor of the Zigzag Valley to Government Camp (below).

While much of the old road has survived, the modern alignment of US 26 cut through this spot on the old loop, creating one of two gaps on Laurel Hill that will require significant structures to reconnect

Although almost all of the old highway survives where it climbs the Laurel Hill grade, this spot marks one of the two major gaps along the way that would require a significant new structure to reconnect the route. A second gap occurs at the crest of Laurel Hill, to the east, where the modern highway cuts deeply through the mountain. This map shows the surviving, abandoned sections of the historic highway along the Laurel Hill grade and upper and lower gaps that must be bridged:

[click here for a large version of this map]

On the ground, the lower Laurel Hill gap looks like this:

The lower Laurel Hill gap is at a well-known spot where a history marker points toward a short trail to one of the Barlow Road “chutes” that white migrants on the Oregon Trail endured in their final push to the Willamette Valley. 

ODOT has made this section of highway much faster and more freeway-like in recent years in the name of “safety”, but in the process made it impossible for hikers to cross the highway from the Pioneer Bridge Trail to visit the Barlow Road chute. A freeway-style median now blocks anyone from simply walking across the highway and cyclone fences have been added to the north side to make sure hikers get the message.

Given this reality, both of the Laurel Hill gaps would be great candidates for major new crossings, along the lines of work ODOT has done in the Gorge to reconnect the HCRH. This viaduct (below) was recently built by ODOT at Summit Creek, on the east side of Shellrock Mountain, where the modern I-84 alignment similarly took a bite out of an inclined section of the old highway, leaving a 40-foot drop-off where the old road once contoured downhill. This sort of solution could work at the lower Laurel Hill gap, too.

This new bicycle and pedestrian viaduct reconnects surviving segments of the original highway near Summit Creek along the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail.

Beyond the Laurel Hill history marker on the south side of the modern US 26, a set of 1950s stone steps (below) leads occasional visitors up to the next section of abandoned Mount Hood Loop highway, where the old route continues its steady climb of Laurel Hill.

Stone steps leading from US 26 to the Barlow Road “chute” on Laurel Hill

This section of the abandoned route is in remarkably good shape, despite more than 60 years of no maintenance, whatsoever. It also briefly serves as the trail to a viewpoint of the Barlow Road chute — a footpath to the top of the chute resumes on the opposite side of the old highway, about 100 yards from the stone steps.

Abandoned section of the loop highway near the Barlow Road chute

When the historic highway was built in the 1920s, the Barlow Road was still clearly visible and only a few decades old. Despite the care they used elsewhere to build the scenic new road in concert with the landscape, there was no care given to preserving the old Barlow Road. Thus, the historic highway cut directly across the chute, permanently removing a piece of Oregon history. 

Today, the footpath to the top of the chute still gives a good sense of just how daunting this part of the journey was (below). This short spur trail, and others like it along the surviving sections of the old highway, would be integrated into the restored Mount Hood Loop route, providing side attractions for cyclists and hikers to explore along the way.

Looking down the Barlow Road chute from the interpretive trail

Beyond the Barlow chute, the old highway enters a very lush section of forest, where foot traffic from explorers continues to keep a section of old pavement bare (below). Scratch the surface, and even under this much understory, the old highway continues to be in very good condition and could easily be restored in the same way old sections of highway in the Gorge have been brought back to life as a trail.

Abandoned section of the old loop highway near Yocum Falls

Some of the foot traffic along the abandoned Laurel Hill section of the old loop road is headed toward a little-known user path that drops steeply down to Yocum Falls, on Camp Creek. This is a lovely spot that deserves a proper trail someday, and would make an excellent family destination, much as the Little Zigzag Falls trail is today.

Yocum Falls is mostly forgotten since the construction of the modern highway, but remains as beautiful as when it was featured on postcards in the 1920s

Yocum Falls was once well known, as the full extent of this multi-tiered cascade could be seen from along the old highway. As this old postcard from the 1920s shows (below), Camp Creek also served as a fire break for the Sherar Burn, which encompassed much of the area south of today’s US 26 in the early 1900s. You can see burned forest on the south (right) side in this photo and surviving forest on the north (left) side:

Yocum Falls in a 1920s postcard view from the original Mount Hood Loop Highway

The fire also created this temporary view of the falls in the early 1900s, but the forest has since recovered and obscured the view. Today, the short hike down to the falls on the user path is required for a front-row view of Yocum Falls.

Beyond the falls, the abandoned highway makes a pronounced switchback and begins a traverse toward the crest of Laurel Hill. Here, the vegetation becomes more open, and road surface more visible (below).

Abandoned section of the old highway as it approaches the crest of Laurel Hill

Soon this abandoned section of old road makes another turn, this time onto the crest of Laurel Hill. When the historic highway was built, this stretch was still recovering from the Sherar Burn, and the summit was dense with rhododendron and beargrass that put on an annual flower show each June. This was perhaps the most iconic stop along the old route, appearing on countless postcards, calendars and print ads (below).

1940s tourism ad featuring the (then) famous view of Mount Hood from Laurel Hill

Today, most of this section has reforested, but there are still views of the mountain and opportunities for new viewpoints that could match what those Model A drivers experienced in the early days of touring on Mount Hood.

Soon, this abandoned section of old road on Laurel Hill reaches the upper gap, where ODOT has recently made the yawning cut through the crest of the hill even wider. This schematic is a view of the cut looking north (toward the mountain), with the stubs of the historic highway shown: 

If there is any good news here, it is that the modern highway cut is perpendicular to the old loop highway, making it possible to directly connect the surviving sections of the old road with a new bridge. This view (below) is from the eastern stub of the old route, where it suddenly arrives at the modern highway cut. The stub on west side of the cut is plainly visible across US 26:

This panoramic view (below) from the same spot gives a better sense of the gap and the opportunity to bride the upper Laurel Hill gap as part of restoring the old route as a trail. A bonus of bridging the upper gap would be an exceptional view of Mount Hood, which fills the northern skyline from here.

The upper gap is about 250 feet across and 40 feet deep, so are there any local examples of a bridge that could span this? One historic example is the old Moffett Creek Bridge on the HCRH, pictured below while it was being constructed in 1916. This bridge measures about 200 feet in length with a single arch.

Moffett Creek Bridge construction along the Columbia River Highway in 1916

The City of Portland recently broke ground on the new Earl Blumenauer Bridge, a bicycle and pedestrian crossing over Sullivan’s Gulch (and I-84) in Portland. This very modern design (below) might not be the best look for restoring a historic route on Mount Hood, but at 475 feet in length, this $13.7 million structure does give a sense of what it would take to span the upper gap at Laurel Hill. 

The City of Portland recently broke ground for this new bicycle and pedestrian bridge over Sullivan’s Gulch, linking the Lloyd District to Portland’s Central Eastside (City of Portland)

That sounds like a big price tag, but consider that ODOT recently spent three times that amountsimply to add a lane and build a concrete median on the Laurel Hill section of US 26. It’s more about priorities and a vision for restoring the old road than available highway funding. More about that in a moment.

Moving east from the upper Laurel Hill gap, the abandoned section of the old highway continues (below) toward Government Camp, eventually reaching the Glacier View trailhead, where the surviving old highway now serves as the access road to this popular, but cramped, SnoPark.

Abandoned section of the loop highway near Government Camp

Sadly, the Forest Service recently destroyed a portion of the abandoned loop highway just west of the Glacier View trailhead, leaving heaps of senselessly plowed-up pavement behind. While destroying this section of historic road was frustrating (and possibly illegal), it can still be restored fairly easily. But this regrettable episode was another reminder of the vulnerability of the old highway without a plan to preserve and restore it.

Piles of paving line a short section of the abandoned loop highway near Government Camp where the Forest Service recently destroyed the road surface with no consideration of its historic value — a senseless reminder of the vulnerability of this precious route

From the Glacier View trailhead, the old road become an operating roadway once again, curving south to another junction with US 26, across from the new Mirror Lake trailhead, where a major new recreation site completed in 2018. This trailhead provides parking, restrooms and interpretive displays for visitors to the popular Mirror Lake trail, and is immediately adjacent to the Mount Hood Ski Bowl resort and lodge.

Plans call for a new bicycle and pedestrian bridge over US 26 at the Mirror Lake trailhead, spanning one of the critical gaps necessary to reconnect the old highway route

Crossing the US 26 at this junction is a sketchy, scary experience, especially on foot or a bicycle. Fortunately, the 2014 Mount Hood Multimodal Plan, adopted jointly by the Forest Service and ODOT, calls for a major bicycle and pedestrian bridge here to allow for safe crossing by hikers, cyclists, skiers and snowshoers, so a plan is already in place to resolve this obstacle.

Middle Section – Government Camp to Barlow Pass

Mount Hood mirrored in one of the ponds at Multorpor Fen (State of Oregon)

From the Mirror Lake trailhead, the old highway loops through today’s parking lot at the Mount Hood Ski Bowl resort, then crosses US 26 again to loop through the mountain village of Government Camp. These graceful curves in the old route were bisected when the modern US 26 was built in the 1950s, leaving them intact as local access roads. However, because the Government Camp section of the old road serves as the village main street, the concept for a Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trail parallels the south edge of US 26 along a proposed new trail section, and avoids two crossings of the modern highway in the process. 

However, a more interesting (but complicated) option in this area is possible along the south edge of the Multorpor Fen, an intricate network of ponds, bogs and meadows sandwiched between the east and west Mount Hood Ski Bowl resort units. The remarkable view in the photo above shows one of the ponds along this alternate route, far enough from the modern highway to make traffic noise a distant hum. However, this route would also require crossing a section of private land at Ski Bowl East. The mountain views and buffer from the highway make this an option worth considering, nonetheless.

Both options are shown on the concept map at the top of this article, and either route through the Government Camp area leads to the northern foot of Multorpor Mountain, where the concept for the state trail is to repurpose a combination of existing and abandoned forest roads as new trail to historic Summit Meadow and popular Trillium Lake, where the second and third campgrounds along the proposed trail are located.

Historic Summit Meadow, a crucial resting spot for white Oregon Trail migrants in the 1840s along the old Barlow Road
Mount Hood from Trillium Lake

From Trillium Lake, the new trail would follow existing forest roads toward Red Top Meadow, to the east, then follow a new route for about a mile to the continuation of the historic loop highway, just east of the US 26/OR 35 junction. Here, a surviving section of the old road is maintained and remains open to the public, passing the mysterious Pioneer Woman’s Grave site as it climbs toward Barlow Pass. 

Surviving section of the old loop highway near Barlow Pass that is still open for use
This massive, carved history marker once stood at the Pioneer Woman’s Grave along the old loop highway, near Barlow Pass
The badly neglected Pioneer Woman’s Grave site today

When the original highway was completed in the 1920s, a viewpoint along this section of the road was called “Buzzard Point” and inspired postcards and calendar photos in its day. Few call this spot Buzzard Point anymore, but the view survives, along with a rustic roadside fountain built of native stone and still carrying spring water to the passing public. In winter, this section of the old road is also popular with skiers and snowshoers.

This 1920s view from Buzzard Point was well-known in the heyday of the old loop highway
This surviving stone water fountain near Buzzard Point is still flowing nearly a century after it was built!

This section of the old route continues another mile or so to the large SnoPark at Barlow Pass, another important trailhead that serves both the loop highway corridor and the Pacific Crest Trail.

East Section – Barlow Pass to Sherwood Campground

Barlow Road history sign at the Barlow Pass trailhead, where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the historic loop highway

From Barlow Pass, the trail concept calls for a protected bikeway on the shoulder of OR 35, where it crosses the White River and climbs to Bennett Pass. It would be possible for the trail to take a different route along this section, but the traffic volumes and speed on OR 35 are much less intimidating than those on US 26, especially from spring through fall, when ski resort traffic all but disappears. There is also plenty of room to add protected bike lanes along this section of OR 35, including on the new bridge over the White River that was completed just a few years ago.

The Mount Hood Loop trail concept would follow this section of OR 35 as a protected bikeway from Barlow Pass to the White River and Bennett Pass
The White River crossing has always been a popular stop along the Mount Hood Loop Highway. In the early days, motorists could stop here to picnic and pick up souvenirs at “White River Park”
The White River is a notoriously wild glacial stream that has a long history of washing out the loop highway bridges — this was the first bridge to span the river as it appeared in the 1920s
This is a 1930s version of the White River Bridge, one still constructed of logs and planks
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt stopped at the White River crossing in 1937 on their famous tour of the Mount Hood Loop Highway and dedication of Timberline Lodge

Upon reaching Bennett Pass, the proposed route would once again follow an especially scenic section of bypassed historic highway, with views of waterfalls, alpine meadows and the mountain towering above.

Mount Hood from the original Mount Hood Loop Highway at Bennett Pass in the 1930s
1950s view of the Mount Hood Loop Highway at Bennett Pass before the modern highway was constructed

Of the many scenes along the old road that were postcard favorites, the view of the Sahalie Falls Bridge, stone fountain and falls in the background was among the most popular. The bridge was the largest structure on the original loop highway, and a scenic highlight (you can read more about the history of the bridge in this 2013 blog article “Restoring the Sahalie Falls Bridge”)

The graceful Sahalie Falls bridge is the architectural highlight of the old loop highway, and was restored in 2013
The Sahalie Falls Bridge under construction in the 1920s
Popular postcard view of the Sahalie Falls Bridge and stone fountain from the 1920s

Today, the bridge is once again in excellent condition, having been restored by the Federal Highway Administration in 2013. For years, the bridge had been closed to automobiles because of its state of disrepair, but today it stands as perhaps the most significant historic highway feature along the old road.

From Sahalie Falls, the historic road curves east through subalpine forests before arriving at Hood River Meadows, among the largest on Mount Hood and another spot that was featured in countless postcards and advertisements during the heyday of the old road. 

1920s view of the old loop highway at Hood River Meadows. This nearly forgotten section of the old highway still operates today.

The long-abandoned Hood River Meadows campground also survives here, along the east side of the meadows, and is still in excellent condition. This site could be reopened as a second bikepacking-only camping spot along the proposed trail. 

1940s tourism ad featuring Mount Hood from the loop highway at Hood River Meadows

Next, the historic road curves toward OR 35 where it also serves as the resort access road for the Hood River Meadows ski complex. From the spot where the old road meets OR 35, there are a couple more abandoned road sections along the north edge of OR 35 that could be reconnected as part of the Loop Highway trail concept, but this is the last of the surviving sections of the old road on this part of the mountain.

From here, the trail concept would connect a series of old forest roads on a gradual descent of the East Fork Hood River valley, toward Sherwood Campground, located along the East Fork, and completing the Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trail.

East Fork Hood River near Sherwood Campground in winter

Sherwood Campground is a very old, still operating campground that includes another stone fountain from the old highway, located near the campground entrance. The campground is also a jumping off point for the popular trail to Tamanawas Falls. Nearby Little John SnoPark would serve as the main eastern trailhead for the new trail, with a short connecting route the main trail. 

Historic stone fountain from the original loop Highway at Sherwood Campground
Tamanawas Falls, just off the loop highway near Sherwood Campground

Sherwood Campground would form the eastern terminus of the historic section of the proposed Loop Highway State Trail. From here the larger Mount Hood scenic loop route would follow OR 35 through the narrowing canyon of the East Fork to the wide expanse of the upper Hood River Valley. 

This narrow section of the loop highway is where a safe, protected bikeway will need to thread the needle between cliffs and the East Fork Hood River

The canyon section along the East Fork is a crux segment for the loop route, with the modern highway wedged between the river and a wall of steep cliffs and talus slopes. Engineers designing a safe bikeway through this section of road could take some inspiration from the Shellrock Mountain in the Gorge, where the HCRH State Trail threads a similar corridor between I-84 and the talus slopes of Shellrock Mountain. This crux section along the East Fork is about a mile long.

WHERE TO START?

Touring the upper Hood River Valley in the 1950s

What would it take for this concept to become a reality? A crucial first step would be a feasibility study inspired by the HCRH State Trail, with an emphasis on the potential this example offers for restoring and reconnecting historic sections of the old Mount Hood Loop Highway on Mount Hood. 

Rock crusher along the original loop highway during its construction in the 1920s

An obvious sponsor for this work would be the Oregon Department of Transportation, working in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. These agencies have worked together to bring the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail to reality and have both the experience and capacity to repeat this success story on Mount Hood. The following outline could be a starting point for their work:

Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trail Feasibility Study 

Purpose Statement

Restore and reconnect surviving sections of the historic Mount Hood Loop Highway from Rhododendron to Sherwood Campground as a paved state trail the combines shared right-of-way and non-motorized trail experiences.

Feasibility Study Objectives

  • Identify new, paved trail segments needed on public land to complete the loop using existing forest road alignments whenever possible.
  • Identify surviving historic resources and new interpretive opportunities along the trail.
  • Identify multimodal trailhead portals at the trail termini and at major destinations along the trail, including Rhododendron and Government Camp.
  • Identify bike-and-hike opportunities that build on soft-trail access from a new, paved state trail.
  • Coordinate and correlate route and design options and opportunities with the 2014 Mount Hood Multimodal Transportation Planand the Mount Hood Scenic Byway Interpretive Plan and Design Guidelines.
  • Identify an alternate bicycle route for the Mount Hood Scenic Byway from Sandy to Rhododendron that does not follow the US 26 shoulder.
  • Identify design solutions for designing a protected shoulder bikeway in the crux section of OR 35 in the East Fork canyon.
  • Engage public and private stakeholders and the general public in developing the feasibility study.

But what would it really take..?

Railing and sidewalk repairs underway to the historic Sahalie Falls Bridge in 2013

While ODOT has directly managed construction of the HCRH State Trail in the Gorge, a lesser-known federal agency has been taking the lead in recent, similar projects on Mount Hood. A little-known division of the Federal Highway Administration known as Federal Lands Highway is gaining a growing reputation for innovative, sustainable designs in recent projects on our federal public lands. 

On Mount Hood, Federal Lands Highway oversaw the restoration of the Sahalie Falls Bridge in 2013, a long-overdue project that rescued this priceless structure from the brink of oblivion. Like any highway agency, they excelled at the roadway element of the project, like restoring the bridge and related structure. Other opportunities were missed, however, including improving the adjacent parking areas and providing interpretive amenities for visitors. 

Forms for new railing caps on the Sahalie Falls Bridge in 2013
Federal Lands Highway rebuilt the footing for the historic water fountain at Sahalie Falls as part of the bridge restoration project
The newly restored Sahalie Falls Bridge and fountain in 2014

Federal Lands Highway also completed a major reconstruction of OR 35 at Newton Creek in 2012. This project was in response to massive flooding of this surprisingly powerful glacial stream in 2006. Their work here shows some of the negatives of a highway agency taking the lead, with a very large footprint on the land and a big visual impact with over-the-top, freeway-style “safety” features that are old-school by today’s design practices.

The mega-culvert project built by Federal Lands Highway at Newton Creek in 2012

In 2012, Federal Lands Highway also completed (yet another!) bridge replacement over the White River, which was also damaged in the 2006 floods. The massive new bridge is similarly over-the-top to their work at Newton Creek, but Federal Lands Highway deserves credit for rustic design features that blend the structure with the surroundings, including native stone facing on the bridge abutments.

Western Federal Lands completed the new White River Bridge in 2012

The most promising recent work on Mount Hood by Federal Lands Highway is the completion of the new Mirror Lake Trailhead in 2018. This project involved a significant planning effort in a complex location with multiple design alternatives. Their work here involved the public, too, something their earlier work at White River, Sahalie Falls and Newton Creek neglected.

The new Mirror Lake Trailhead was completed in a partnership of Federal Lands Highway, the Forest Service and ODOT in 2018

The final result at Mirror Lake is an overall success, despite the controversy of moving the trailhead to begin with. The new trailhead is now a prototype of what other trailheads along a restored Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trailcould (and should) look like, complete with restrooms, interpretive signs, bicycle parking and accessibility for people using mobility devices.

New shoulder swales along US 26 were part of the Mirror Lake trailhead project, helping to protect water quality of Camp Creek from highway runoff
The new Mirror Lake Trailhead plaza includes restrooms, interpretive signage, bike parking and seating for visitors

Beyond the hardscape features at the new trailhead, Federal Lands Highways worked with the Forest Service to replant areas along a new paved section of trail. This work provides another useful template for how the two federal agencies could work together with ODOT in a larger restoration of the old Loop Highway as a new trail.

Though it looks a little rough, this area along the new, paved section of the Mirror Lake Trail was landscaped with native materials as part of the new trailhead project
Landscape restoration at the new trailhead included woody forest debris, native understory starts and hydro-seeding to protect newly planted areas from erosion

One of the compelling reason for Federal Lands Highway to take a leading role in a Loop Highway trail project is the unfortunate fact that ODOT has ceded the right-of-way for several of the abandoned sections of the old road to the Forest Service. This would make it difficult for ODOT to use state funds to restore these sections without a federal transportation partner like Federal Lands Highway helping to navigate these jurisdictional hurdles. 

However, governance hurdles like this existed in the Gorge, too, and state and federal partners simply worked together to resolve them, provided they had a clear mandate to work toward.

Getting behind the idea… and creating a mandate

The original Mount Hood Loop Highway in the Hood River Valley in the 1930s

Bringing this trail concept to reality will take more than a feasibility study, of course — and even that small step will take some political lifting by local officials, cycling advocates, the local tourism community and even our congressional delegation. While the money is clearly there for ODOT to begin this work, it would only happen with enough political support to begin the work.

The good news is that Oregon’s congressional delegation is increasingly interested in outdoor recreation and our tourism economy, especially when where a coalition of advocates and local officials share a common vision. With the HCRH State Trail in the Gorge nearing completion after more than 30 years of dedicated effort by advocates and ODOT, it’s a good time to consider completing the old loop as the next logical step in restoring a part of our legacy.

The idea of loop around Mount Hood began as soon as the Columbia River Highway was completed in 1915. This article in The Oregon described the first documented trip around the mountain using a patchwork of roads that existed before the Mount Hood Loop was constructed in the 1920s (large PDF versions of this article can be viewed at the links, below)

1915 Article – Page 1 (PDF)

1915 Article – Page 2 (PDF)

Rumor has it that new legislation is in the works to ramp up protection and improve recreation opportunities for Mount Hood and the Gorge. Including theMount Hood Loop Highway State Trail concept in new legislation would be an excellent catalyst for moving this idea from dream to reality. 

But could this really happen in today’s fraught political environment in Washington D.C.? Don’t rule it out: President Reagan was notorious for his hostility toward public lands, and yet he infamously “held his nose” and signed the Columbia River Gorge legislation into law in 1986, including the mandate to devise a plan to restore surviving sections of the HCRH as a trail. 

So, could this happen in the era of Trump for Mount Hood? Stay tuned…

WyEast Blog at 10 years! (and counting!)

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First snow of autumn 2018 on Mount Hood as seen from Dufur Mill Road

Last November marked 10 years since I started the WyEast Blog, way back in 2008. It was a pretty hopeful year, as you may recall, followed by some very progressive reforms for how our public lands are managed.  And my, how things can change — elections do have consequences! So, as always, the work continues as we weather another round of political attacks on our hard-fought protections for public lands.

Much has changed in WyEast country over the past 10 years, too, but certainly not my commitment to a better future for Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge. I’m frequently asked “do you reallythink Mount Hood will become a national park?” and my response is always the same, “a little more every day!”Why? Because despite the currently bleak situation in Washington D.C., we’re (finally) witnessing the start to a changing of the guard in generational leadership at all levels of our society. The Millennials are here!

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Author on my last visit to Eagle Creek, about a year before the September 2017 fire

What will history say about the Baby Boomers as they (reluctantly) hand over the reins to a younger generation? For all they have given us in their epic contributions to art and culture, they have also been surprisingly awful when it comes to conservation, woefully lacking in both courage and imagination. It’s true the Millennials are overdue in taking the reins, but since twice delivering the first African American to the U.S. presidency (a man who the Boomers voted overwhelmingly against, history shall note), they have steadily expanded their presence on the local, state and national political scenes. The 2016 elections represented the beginning of what will become a tidal wave in coming years, too.

By wide margins, Millennials are genuinely committed to conservation and sustainability, more balanced in their personal lives in how they manage ambition and status, and much less materialistic and consumptive than their elders. The numbers prove this. And thus my confidence that the Millennials’ turn at governance can (and will) return us to the bold conservation legacy of past eras and previous generations of leadership. The pendulum will swing, once again, and I believe that expanding our national park system will be part of that renaissance.

In the beginning…

Ten years ago, I started this blog with a rather obscure look at a couple of dead trees at a favorite roadside viewpoint of mine, along Dufur Mill Road. Here’s what that spot used to look like:

02_2008DufurMillRoad

The two snags featured in the very first article on this blog… but what about the big fir on the right?

Sometime that year, both snags on the left side of the photo were felled, possibly for firewood, a common activity in that area. At the time I was dismayed at the senseless loss of a couple of valauble and (to me) beautiful snags. Mount Hood’s old ghost trees are essential for wildlife and forest health, after all! And thus, my first article began what would become many looks at the lesser-known and under-appreciated corners of WyEast country, all in celebration of our magical mountain and gorge!

Today, the view from this spot on Dufur Mill Road is still much the same, minus the old snags. Here’s what it looked like a couple of weeks ago (below), where you can pick out individual trees in the background that appear much the same. The large Douglas fir on the right side of the original photo still stands, too, but what about the apparent change in height of this tree between the above and below photos?

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Today the two snags are long gone, but the big Douglas fir is still standing

Yes, the old fir did grow, but not by that much. It turns out that in the 10 years since the original photo was taken, a young Douglas fir has grown from just a few feet tall to nearly 20 feet — blocking the original view! Here’s what today’s scene looks like as viewed from the exact spot as the 2008 photo:

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The only true constant in the forest… is change!

The changes in this favorite spot of mine are a good metaphor for so many places on Mount Hood and in the Gorge over the past ten years, where the only constant is change. This article explores some of the changes, plus a rundown of the most read and least read articles on the blog. Hope you enjoy the look back!

The Articles

Including this retrospective, I’ve posted 184 articles on the blog since November 2008, ranging from the incredibly obscure (my favorite!) to the surprisingly popular.

In the first five years, visitors grew gradually to a couple thousand annually, then abruptly jumped to 30,000 in 2013 and 60,000 in 2014! Since then, visitors have hovered between 70,000 and 90,000 annually. A decent share also click through to the Mount Hood National Park Campaign website, and who knows? One of those visitors might be the future congresswoman or senator who introduces a bill to make Mount Hood and the Gorge a national park! That’s the goal of an “idea campaign”, after all — and why I started the blog.

But blog metrics don’t really tell the full story, as a select few posts have been the major drivers in visits over the years. These posts continue to pop up each week in the blog stats, years after they were first published.

At the top of that list is an article debunking the many persistent myths about ticks that continue to circulate among the hiking community. I published “Ticks! Ticks! (10 Common Myths” in April 2013, and it’s the main reason for the big jump in traffic that year that has since continued. The article now has 173,000 views and counting — and that’s great news, as ticks present a growing health risk in the Gorge now that Lyme disease has spread to our region.

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Nobody likes ticks… but people do like this article!

Right behind ticks in our apparent collective anxiety is poison oak, and a companion piece called “10 Common Poison Oak Myths” is thus the second most read article on the blog. A lot of bad information circulates online among hikers on both the risks and treatment for poison oak exposure. This article was posted in 2012, before the tick article, but caught fire after the piece on ticks began to drive search engines toward the blog. Today, the poison oak article has had 78,000 visitors and shows up every week in blog stats.

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I’d been itching to write the sequel to this one…

The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire kicked off a series of articles covering the aftermath of the fire. The first article featured some of the earliest views into the burn as seen from the Washington side of the Gorge, just after the smoke had cleared. This article was widely shared in social media, with 23,000 views and counting.

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The first look into the smoky aftermath…

Later articles spotlighting the burn were based on State of Oregon aerial reconnaissance photos that provided exceptional detail of the devastation at iconic places in the Gorge and the nearly immediate signs of recovery that was already underway. One of these revealed a massive cliff collapse at Punch Bowl Falls in early 2018, just a few months after the fire.

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Perhaps more shocking than the Eagle Creek Fire, itself, were the dual cliff collapses at Metlako Falls and Punchbowl Falls on Eagle Creek.

We will never know if the cliff collapse resulted from the effects of the fire, but when the State of Oregon aerial surveys revealed the collapse, it came as a shock to anyone who knew this spot. More than 25,000 readers have viewed the article and it continues to be visited regularly.

While it’s great to see a big response to an article, truth be told, my favorite posts are among the least read. This describes mostof the posts on the blog, of course!

One of these lesser-read pieces was in 2010, when I posted a proposal to restore Warren Falls, a virtually unknown spot near Starvation Creek that had been brutally altered by Highway Department engineers in the 1930s. I had long been saddened to see how this beautiful spot had been manhandled by the same Highway Department that had gracefully navigated other waterfalls in the Gorge with beautiful bridges, viaducts and overlooks, and hoped that ODOT might incorporate restoration of the falls into a major effort to reconnect the original Historic Columbia River Highway.

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This became a bit of a crusade for a few years, including a featured spot on OPB’s Oregon Field Guide, but in the end, ODOT wasn’t interested in owning up to their crime against nature (and as I pointed out in one of the follow-up articles, the diversion was a clear violation of state statute, too!). Score another one for the highway builders, but I remain hopeful that someday we will undo this travesty.

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Warren Falls comes (briefly) alive in 2014!

In the meantime, a vestige of the original falls appears a few times each winter when ODOT’s diversion dam and bypass tunnel are overwhelmed by high runoff, bringing Warren Falls back to life, if only briefly.

And while ODOT once again turned its back on Warren Creek, Mother Nature may bring her wrath upon the diversion structures in the aftermath of the Eagle Creek Fire. Ironically, the original project was in response to Warren Creek carrying heavy rock and wood debris onto the old highway following an early 1900s burn in the upper canyon Eighty years later, the upper canyon has burned again, and another cycle of heavy debris flows is likely in coming years. She does bat last, after all…

In happier ODOT news, an August 2012 article proposing a “Boot Loop” transit service around the mountain and through the gorge seemed far-fetched at the time, but ODOT has since operated transit in the west end of the Gorge and helped fund transit to Timberline Lodge. Currently, a “round the mountain” transit study is underway to explore the potential for completing the loop. That’s great news!

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Not such a goofy idea after all..?

The Gorge Express and Mount Hood Express bus lines are general purpose, too, whereas the “Boot Loop” idea was more narrowly aimed at recreation. The broader transit service we’re now seeing on the ground is far better, providing essential service to places where basic transit connections were long overdue. Kudos to ODOT for moving beyond their highway roots and bringing much-needed transportation alternatives to the mountain and gorge!

10 years of Big Changes

Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge have seen some epic changes over the past 10 years, perhaps most notably the Dollar Lake Fire on Mount Hood’s north slope in 2012 and the Eagle Creek Fire that burned much of the Oregon side of the Gorge in 2017. But there were many other significant changes, too, albeit somewhat overshadowed by the big fire events. The following are a few “then and now” highlights of these notable changes in WyEast country over the past ten years.

Global warming? Absolutely. Despite the frustrating, science-defying (and completely cynical) state of denial coming from the White House and Republican Party, bright red warning flags are showing up all around us, including on Mount Hood. As the photo pair below shows, the Eliot Glacier continues to recede at an alarming rate, as do the rest of Mount Hood’s twelve glaciers. I’ve marked a couple of prominent rock outcrops adjacent to the lower Eliot Galcier icefall to show how the “firn” line has retreated. The firn line is the point in a moving glacier that marks equilibrium, with the glacier is accumulating ice above the line and losing ice (melting) where it flows below the firn line.

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Blue ice still spilled over the lower Eliot Glacier icefall in 2008

As the photos show, the lower icefall (just above and left of the outcrop marked “A”) is notably smaller and darker, with debris carried within the glacier now exposed by melting at this level due to the rising firn line. Both photos were taken in late summer, when summer melting was at its peak.

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Global warming is rapidly changing the once-mighty Eliot Glacier

The once-permanent snowfields on the margins of the glacier are also noticeably smaller and seem doomed in the near future. Permanent snowfields are the most vulnerable ice features on the mountain and a good visual indicator of the speed in which global warming is melting our glaciers.

While future generations may forgive us for failing to actually slow or stop global warming, they surely will never forgive us for willful denial of its existence as a human-caused crisis of our own making. Let’s hope we can make up some lost ground in the near future, with the Millennial generation finally taking charge.

The changes to the Eliot Glacier are also being felt downstream, no more so than in the upper reaches of the Eliot Branch canyon, where a more volatile glacial outflow is rapidly carving into the once glacier-covered valley floor, constantly changing the landscape. In 2006, the stream flooded once again, greatly deepening the canyon and making it unsafe to cross for hikers on the Timberline Trail. This situation languished for nine years, with many hikers choosing to scale the crumbling canyon wall (shown below) with the aid of a worn rope anchored to a boulder!

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The ever-deepening canyon on the upper reaches of the Eliot Branch

This blog played a small part in helping the Forest Service move forward with a new crossing of the Eliot Branch when a ranger from the Hood River District read this 2014 article and reached out to discuss options for a new, downstream crossing. Along the way, I updated the map from the blog article to align with Forest Service and Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) plans for the restored crossing, and it even made the cover of a local newspaper in Hood River! (…okay, so it’s an advertising tabloid…!)

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Not exactly the New York Times, but I’ll take it!

The newly reconnected trail drops steadily from Cloud Cap Inn to a section of the raging Eliot Branch that has (somewhat) stabilized, and can be reasonably crossed in the summer months. Though there are no immediate plans for a trail bridge here, the Forest Service moved large boulders in the stream to serve as stepping stones, hopefully making the crossing a bit safer for hikers. The restored trail opened in 2017.

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The newly constructed Timberline Trail just above the Eliot Crossing (photo: USFS)

Moving down to the Hood River Valley, the iconic view of Mount Hood from this field along Laurance Lake Road (below) looks much the same today as it did in 2008, albeit with some logging on private land in the distance. What you can’t see in the 2008 view is that it was captured just a year after voters approved Measure 49, which reversed 2004’s deceptive Measure 37. This earlier measure would have almost certainly brought resort development and luxury McMansions to the Hood River Valley.

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The timeless view of Mount Hood from Laurance Lake Road

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…still pretty much the same ten years later!

Even better, this farm has since come under the ownership of a member of the Parkdale Valley Land Trust, and is now even more likely to remain unchanged for the foreseeable future. Which, in turn, means that a spot that hasn’t change since the 1950s (below) might look much the same in the 2050s. That’s a great legacy being carried forward to future generations.

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Maybe past really can be prologue..? (photo: State Archives)

Here’s another view of the Parkdale area in the Upper Hood River Valley from Middle Mountain, a mostly county-owned forested ridge that separates the upper and lower valleys. From this spot, the most notable change is a silver band of ghost trees marking the 2012 Dollar Lake burn, clearly visible along the northern shoulders of the mountain.

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The upper Hood River Valley ten years ago…

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…and earlier last year…

The Dollar Lake Fire was the third in rapid succession (following the Bluegrass Fire in 2006 and Gnarl Ridge Fire in 2008) to burn the slopes of Mount Hood. As jarring as the changes may be, these new burns provide a front-row seat to the rapidly recovering forest, a timeless and essential cycle that has been disrupted by the Forest Service policy of aggressive fire suppression over the past century.  State and federal land agencies have only just begun to rethink their approach to fire moving forward, a change in culture that will take many years to fully achieve, especially in the era of climate change.

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Huckleberries sprouting from the base of a burned snag in the Dollar Lake Burn

One unexpected benefit of the fires on Mount Hood was preparing those (like me) who love the mountain and gorge for the devastating Eagle Creek Fire that raged through the western Columbia River Gorge in September 2017. The Mount Hood fires helped many who understood the abstract benefit of forest fires come to grips with the emotional reality of seeing a favorite place changed, and begin to appreciate the stark beauty in the burned landscape and witness the unfolding forest rebirth.

For the past year, thousands of volunteers with organizations like Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) have been working with the Forest Service and Oregon State Parks to begin digging out miles of burned trails in the gorge. Last November, the Forest Service officially opened the first of these cleared trails, including the iconic Larch Mountain Trail that follows Multnomah Creek, giving hikers their first look at the changed landscape, and a chance to expand their own understanding and acceptance of fire in our forests.

Earlier last year, I joined TKO crews to work on the trail and capture photos of familiar scenes as they now appear, after the fire. This set shows Weisendanger Falls from the same spot before and after the fire:

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Weisendanger Falls on Multnomah Creek ten years ago…

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…and in spring 2018, after the Eagle Creek Fire swept through

While the area below Weisendanger Falls shows signs of the fire — notably , more logs in the creek — this photo pair shows the extent of the burn above the falls, where the forest was more substantially impacted:

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Weisendanger Falls before…

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…and after the fire, in spring 2018

Similar scenes can be found throughout the Eagle Creek Burn, where the fire generally left a beneficial “mosaic” pattern, with heavily burned areas mixed with largely intact forest. These areas are expected to recover quickly, with healthy patches of surviving forest helping adjacent burned areas recover by reseeding, providing cover for wildlife and creating shade. But there are exceptions, especially Oneonta canyon, where the burn was especially catastrophic. The recovery in these places will span decades.

* * * * *

Thus far in this 10-year retrospective article, the focus has been on big changes brought by nature (albeit with an assist from man), but there have been plenty of changes brought by humans over the past ten years, too — both good and bad.

Let’s start with the bad (and ugly). Tragically, corporate timber behemoth Weyerhaeuser became the major private land owner in the West Fork Hood River valley over the past decade, taking ownership of private forests that had long been held by Longview Fibre (and then briefly by a Canadian equity trader). Though Longview Fibre had greatly accelerated logging in the 2000s, Weyerhauser has ramped up the destruction and embarked on a complete liquidation of the forests along a West Fork. Their purported “sustainability” mission is laughable in the modern area of chasing stock prices with massive, unsustainable clear cutting.

This scene is along the spectacular West Fork canyon, just above the Lake Branch confluence. It’s a crime against nature that any private entity should own land of this scenic and ecologic value, and Weyerhauser’s recent “stewardship” is proof:

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Weyerhauser didn’t own it yet, but the assault had begun…

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…but Weyerhauser greatly accelerated the deforestation of the West Fork

Not seen in these photos are the miles of shoddy logging roads cut into steep slopes in order to haul out the logs and the millions of gallons of liquid herbicide sprayed on the slopes of the West Fork canyon to kill whatever vegetation managed to survive the logging show. Modern corporate logging is about exterminating native forests and replacing them with hybridized tree farms, make no mistake about it.

Some of the more appalling Weyerhaeuser logging practices are on display along the canyon section of the West Fork, where the river cascades beneath towering basalt cliffs where the scenery would merit park status anywhere else in the country. In this spot, a healthy forest directly adjacent to the canyon wall was cut in 2016 and sprayed with herbicides in 2017, with no regard to the river corridor, directly below:

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A forested bluff above the West Fork canyon ten years ago…

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…and in 2018 after Weyerhaeuser had “sustainably managed” it…

While it’s tough to see healthy forests cut on such a reckless scale, it’s also possible that Weyerhaeuser’s new lust for quick profits over sustainability could tempt the company to sell their cut over lands to the public in the interest of protecting the West Fork valley over the long term. After all, it will take decades for these forests to recover, and Weyerhaeuser seems to have lost patience with timelines on that scale. The sooner we can reclaim these precious lands for the public, the better.Watch for a future blog proposal on that subject!

On to more positive developments!  2018 also marked the grand re-opening of the Old Vista Ridge Trail, a wonderful “lost” trail that winds north from the Vista Ridge Trailhead to a dramatic view of Mount Hood’s north side from a rocky spur known as Owl Point. The trail was unofficially reopened in 2007 by volunteers from the Oregon Hiker’s forum and maintained ever since, a project that led to the formation of Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO).

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User-made trail signs ten years ago…

Over that time, it became clear that the trail needed to be officially recognized by the Forest Service in order to be properly maintained over the long haul. After much discussion, the agency signed an agreement with TKO in 2017 to adopt the trail, caring for it in perpetuity.

The grand re-opening was originally planned for the fall of 2017, but the Eagle Creek Fire intervened, with much of the north side of Mount Hood closed to the public for fear of the fire moving south into the West Fork valley and toward the mountain.

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…replaced with official Forest Service signs last summer!

In July of last year, the rescheduled re-opening finally happened, with an official “cutting of the survey tape” with loppers and a log saw by TKO’s executive director Steve Kruger and Hood River District Ranger Janeen Tervo. A celebratory stewardship day followed on the trail, and so began a new era for this wonderful trail. TKO and the Forest Service are planning other new trails in the area, so hopefully Old Vista Ridge marks the beginning of a trail renaissance on Mount Hood.

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Making it official!

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TKO volunteers celebrate at Owl Point on dedication day

The Old Vista Ridge Trail is snowed in for the winter, now, but you can visit most years from mid-June through October to admire the view and the new, official trail signs! Read more about the trail in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide.

Not far from Old Vista Ridge, another “lost” spot was saved in 2015 when the Western Rivers Conservancy rescued it from Weyerhauser through a direct land purchase. Western Rivers later sold the land to Hood River County at a deep discount, thanks to a Oregon Parks and Recreation Grant, which in turn was submitted on behalf of the county by another non-profit, Thrive Hood River (then called the Hood River Valley Residents Committee). Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) was in the mix, too, offering to build a trail system in the new county park as part of matching contribution toward the state grant.

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This sign marks a new era for Punchbowl Falls

Sound complicated? It was! But the good news today is that most of the trails envisioned in the original park concept are now complete, and can be explored today. There are still a few finishing touches (notably, trail signs, which are currently in progress thanks to a Hood River scout troop — this is very much a DIY park!), but the main pieces to this new nature park are in place for all to enjoy.

The main focus of the new park is dramatic Punchbowl Falls, a powerful waterfall on the West Fork of the Hood River that has carved an enormous amphitheater from solid basalt. The area just below the falls is also reserved for tribal fishing, a native tradition here that spans millennia and continues to plays a central cultural and economic role for local tribes.

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The massive basalt amphitheater at Punchbowl Falls

When the new trail network at Punchbowl Falls Park was first scouted in 2016, great care was taken to respect fishing paths used by the tribes to access the falls, while also providing a way for park visitors to enjoy the many views in this beautiful canyon. Another goal was to consolidate the confusing maze of user trails in the area. All of the work was completed by volunteers from 2016 through last fall.

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Volunteers scouting the proposed trail network

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Building the Dogwood Trail in 2017

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Building the lower Yew Trail last year

The newest trail was completed last November, and follows the West Fork to the confluence of the East and West Forks of the Hood River, another popular feature in the park. Though the trails won’t be signed until early next year, they’re easy to follow and explore, and the park is especially peaceful in winter if you’re looking for a quiet walk in the forest. You can read about the hike here in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide.

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The completed Yew Trail along the West Fork this fall

The new Punchbowl Falls Park spans roughly two miles of river, forever protecting land that had been left to the mercy of private timber corporations for more than a century. As if to underscore this point, Weyerhauser promptly logged off an entire hillside that rises directly above the new park before the site had even been transferred to county ownership.  Thankfully, they spared the Punchbowl property from a similar fate before selling it to Western Rivers.

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Thanks for the new view from Punchbowl Bridge, Weyerhauser…

Another big change over the past decade came to perhaps the most popular trail on Mount Hood, the venerable Mirror Lake trail, located near Government Camp. For nearly a century, this beloved trail to a small mountain lake was a “first hike” to thousands visiting the mountain for the first time, including me!

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One last snowshoe trip to Mirror Lake before ODOT closed winter access

A series of early articles in this blog focused on an ill-conceived ODOT project to widen Highway 26 in the Laurel Hill section, just west of Government Camp. The original Mirror Lake trailhead was part of the collateral damage of this now-completed road widening project. Even before the widening project, ODOT began closing the old trailhead during the winter months, cutting off access to legions of snowshoers and skiers who had used it for years. Later, the widening project finished the job permanently, and the old trailhead is now closed – including removal of the old footbridge over Camp Creek.

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Dogged snowshoers were not easily deterred by the winter closure in 2010

While ODOT focused on highway widening, a little known federal highway agency known as the Federal Lands Division worked with the Forest Service to design and build a new Mirror Lake trailhead at the west end of the Mount Hood Ski Bowl parking lot. This arm of the Federal Highway Administration also oversaw the recent replacement of the White River Bridge and restoration of the Historic Sahalie Falls Bridge, near Hood River Meadows. The new Mirror Lake Trailhead opened just a few weeks ago, and was immediately filled to overflowing with visitors.

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The new Mirror Lake Trailhead

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The new trailhead features toilets and handsome stone work

I’ll post a proper review of the new trailhead and trail once the snow melts this year, but perhaps the best outcome is restored winter access to the Mirror Lake area. Another important element of the project is a barrier-free design from the trailhead to a new footbridge over Camp Creek, a much-needed addition to the very limited number of accessible trails in the Mount Hood area.

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Paved, barrier-free section of the new Mirror Lake Trail

One of the more profound changes of the past ten years came when President Obama signed a major wilderness bill into law in 2009 that greatly expanded wilderness protection in the Gorge and around Mount Hood. That law protected several small areas on the margins of existing wilderness that had been left out of earlier legislation. One such area is along the western margins of the lightly visited Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness, which ironically is the closest designated wilderness to the Portland metropolitan area. The expanded boundary incorporates forested slopes of Wildcat Mountain and McIntyre Ridge that had long been tempting targets for Forest Service timber sales.

At about that time in the late 2000s, the Bureau of Land Management abruptly closed a northern access point to the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, where an old logging spur provided access to the McIntyre Ridge Trail. Hikers soon discovered a new way to access McIntyre Ridge from another logging spur located on Forest Service land, which in turn led to an ancient roadbed from a long-ago era when a forest lookout tower stood on Wildcat Mountain.

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This section of the McIntyre Ridge Trail follows a former lookout access road

The Forest Service still has not embraced the “New McIntyre Trailhead”, as it is known to hikers, but this unofficial trailhead has restored public access to this newly protected corner of the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness. More importantly, this is an area where “eyes on the forest” are especially important, as the Wildcat Mountain area has a long history of lawlessness and abuse from shooters, dumpers and 4-wheelers.

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Blaze along the McIntyre Ridge Trail

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Shooters can’t seem to resist destroying public property… and anything else they can shoot

The good news is that hikers have continued to use the McIntyre Ridge trail over the ensuing years, though there are still too many reports of illegal activity. Just last summer, a local hiker came across a pair of pickups that had driven at least a mile into the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness along McIntyre Ridge and set up a camp in the middle of the trail! Worse, off-roaders have cut completely new roads into the wilderness on the margins of the Salmon Huckleberry, especially in this area. These are federal crimes, of course, though Forest Service resources for enforcing the law are minimal.

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Rogue off-roaders well inside the Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness earlier this year (photo: Walrus)

Fortunately, public land law-breakers are well aware of their illegal behavior and tend to shy away from busy recreation areas. Therefore, my hope is that the Forest Service will eventually recognize and champion the New McIntyre trailhead as for protecting the wilderness through “eyes on the forest”. More to come in future articles on this little corner of Mount Hood country..

And the next 10 years..?

Looking at the many profound changes in the Gorge and around Mount Hood over the past ten years, it’s easy to feel a bit overwhelmed and discouraged by the pace and scale of change. The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire was especially traumatic for so many who love the Gorge. But the changes are also a reminder of the ongoing need for vigilance in protecting these special places and the role we all have to continue moving Mount Hood and the Gorge toward a new vision of restoration and renewal and away from our exploitive, often destructive past.

I’m optimistic that we’ll continue making progress in coming years, just as we have over the past decade that I’ve documented with this blog.  I plan to continue posting articles here to track the changes and make regular deep dives into the lesser known corners of the Gorge and Mount Hood. And I’ll also dream a bit about how we might better care for these places that we all love while making our public lands more accessible to everyone.

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Hiking with Mom on Park Ridge in my formative years!

Over the course of the past ten years, I’ve tried to post at least once per month, but you might have noticed that I haven’t quite kept that pace over the past year or two.  That’s largely due to the fact that my elderly folks have suddenly needed more help as they both struggled with failing health. In September, my mom passed away after a long and cruel struggle with memory disease, so we’ve now shifted to supporting my 89-year old dad as he adjusts to suddenly living alone after 68 years of marriage.

While sorting through family memories of Mom, I came across a photo (above) from a family backpack through the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, way back in 1974 when I was 12 years old. I was already an experienced hiker and backpacker at that point in my life, thanks to the love of the outdoors my Iowan parents shared in their beloved, adopted Pacific Northwest.

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Me (standing on the rock, of course!) with my mom and sister on a Timberline Trail backpack in 1976

That’s a precious gift my folks gave to me and I’m thankful every day for my good fortune to have been raised with boots on my feet and a pack on my back! Too many in our spectacular corner of the world take our public lands for granted, and barely make the time or effort to explore them, often because they don’t really know how to. That’s another motivation for the blog and the Mount Hood National Park “idea campaign”. Our public lands are a gift for all of us, and I’ll also continue to post articles that celebrate this legacy and provide tips for how to explore the lesser-known corners of WyEast country.

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Older, grayer but ready for another 10 years of celebrating WyEast!

Well, that’s probably more than enough for this retrospective article. But if you’re read this far, thank you for taking the time to visit the blog and especially those who’ve reached out with a comment or e-mail over the years. Much appreciated! I’ve got a bunch of articles and a few surprises in the works heading into 2019, and I’m looking forward to another 10 years!

I hope to see you here along the way — and on the trail, too!

_________________

Tom Kloster • January 2019

Warren Falls: A Postscript (Part 2 of 2)

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The first part of this article focused on the missed opportunity to restore Warren Falls as part of construction of the most recent phase of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail. This article takes a look at this newly completed section of trail.

_________________

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Congressman Peter DeFazio at the grand opening of the new HCRH segment in October (ODOT)

In October, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) opened the latest section of the HCRH State Trail, a segment stretching from the trailhead at the Starvation Creek wayside west to Lindsey Creek. A portion of this newest section follows the original highway grade where it passes Cabin Creek Falls, but most of the route is a completely new trail – or more accurately, a paved multi-purpose path open to both hikers and cyclists.

 

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The newly revamped Starvation Creek Trailhead

The new HCRH trail segment begins in a small plaza constructed at the south edge of the Starvation Creek wayside. Early plans called for a complete reconstruction of the parking area, but budget constraints intervened, and most of the work here is along the margins of the existing parking lot. The trailhead plaza features some to-be-installed interpretive signs in the shade of a group of bigleaf maple trees, a pleasant meeting spot for hikers or cyclists.

Missing from the revamped trailhead is the original Forest Service trailhead sign that once pointed to Warren Falls (below). It’s unclear if this sign will be reinstalled, but given that Warren Falls, itself, was not “reinstalled” as part of this project, the chances are probably slim.

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This sign has gone missing!

The sign actually referred to what is now called Hole-in-the-Wall Falls, where Warren Creek emerges from the diversion tunnel built by ODOT in 1939. The unintended reference to the original falls made for an inspiring Forest Service gaffe for advocates of restoring Warren Falls!

The first few yards of the new trail generally follows the existing route along the Starvation Creek wayside freeway exit ramp. It’s still a noisy, harsh walk through this area, but ODOT has dressed up this section with a sturdy cobble wall and new paving.

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Cobble retaining wall near Starvation Creek

The trail concrete barricades along this section that protect the trail from freeway traffic also feature the same decorative steel fencing found elsewhere on the HCRH State Trail, giving a bit more sense of separation from speeding vehicles. The new trail is also slightly elevated here, reducing the noise impacts somewhat from the old trail that was mostly at the ramp grade.

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Decorative steel fencing near Starvation Creek

Soon, the new trail drops to the only original section of Columbia River Highway on this restored section of trail, where the old road passed in front of Cabin Creek Falls. An elegant but confusing signpost has been added at the junction with the Starvation Ridge Cutoff trail, pointing to Gorge Trail 400, which currently does not exist in this section of the Gorge.

I didn’t hear back from ODOT as to whether a trail renumbering is in the works that would extend the Gorge Trail to Starvation Creek, but it may be that the Forest Service is planning to stitch together a extension of the Gorge Trail from pieces of the Starvation Ridge and Defiance Trails. That would be a welcome development!

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Trail 400..? Is a trail re-numbering in the works?

The location of the new sign almost suggests that the infamous Starvation Cutoff trail – one of the steepest in the Gorge – would be renumbered as the Starvation Ridge trail, with the bypassed section of the current Starvation Ridge trail becoming Trail 400.

Confused..? So are many hikers who visit the area with its already confusing trail network. So, keep your fingers crossed that the Forest Service is rethinking trail numbers and signage in conjunction with the new HCRH trail.

For now, the actual Starvation Cutoff Trail has not changed, though HCRH workers added a nice set of steps at the start of this very steep route.

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New steps at the otherwise humble Starvation Cutoff trailhead

The old pavement in this original highway section was resurfaced with new asphalt as part of the project, but otherwise the route here is much as it was when the highway opened in 1916, including a roadside view of Cabin Creek Falls. However, ODOT missed an opportunity to organize the hordes of visitors who now scramble to the falls along a cobweb of boot paths.

Formalizing a single spur with a properly constructed trail (below) would be a great project for a non-profit like [link]Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO)[/link] in conjunction with Oregon Parks and Recreation (OPRD), who now manage the trail and adjacent park lands.

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Cabin Creek could use a formal path to the falls… and a new sign

[click here for a large version]

Cabin Creek Falls is popular with families (where kids can safely play in the basalt-rimmed splash pool) and photographers (who love this delicate, mossy falls). For many casual visitors, this is already the turn-around point on their walk from the trailhead, with Cabin Creek being the highlight of their experience, so a spur trail would be a nice addition to allow visitors to get off the pavement and explore a soft trail.

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Cabin Creek Falls up close

ODOT also cleaned out the large, stone culvert (below) where Cabin Creek flows under the HCRH State Trail. This display of original dry masonry was mostly buried in debris and undergrowth until the trail project was constructed, so the restoration provides a nice look at the craftsmanship of the original highway.

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Original dry masonry culvert survives at Cabin Creek

As the new trail route reaches the west end of the original highway section, ODOT thoughtfully place a small memorial (below) in the paving – a nice historic reference to the original highway.

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HCRH plaque marks the original highway route near Cabin Creek Falls

As the new route leaves the beautiful, forested section of original highway at Cabin Creek, it suddenly follows the freeway for about 200 yards due to steep slopes along the Gorge wall. This jarringly noisy section could use some replanting to at least create a visual buffer from freeway traffic.

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Noisy, barren stretch of the new trail west of Cabin Creek

Soon, the new HCRH route thankfully curves back into the forest on a surprisingly massive structured fill. This structure was required to maintain the modest trail grade as the route climbs from the freeway shoulder to a slight rise near Warren Creek.

This section is bordered with stained wood guardrails, a new design that departs from the vintage-style white guardrails in other sections of the restored highway, but provides a nice aesthetic that will also be easier to maintain.

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This large, structured fill west of Cabin Creek was required to maintain the trail grade for bicycles

This following view shows the same spot in July, at the height of construction, and before the fill was completed:

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Structured fill near Cabin Creek during construction last July

ODOT was careful to document cultural resources along the route when designing the new trail, including a set of stone ovens built by the original highway masons who camped here during highway construction in the early 1900s. The historic ovens are better protected than before by the raised trail design and guardrails (below), though still fully visible for those who know what they’re looking for.

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The historic stone ovens can be seen from the elevated trail section west of Cabin Creek… if you know where to look

One disappointing detail along this section of trail is a long gabion basket wall (below), apparently constructed to catch loose debris from an adjacent slope. The steel cages holding this wall together will hopefully be covered in moss and ferns in time, but for now it’s an eyesore on an otherwise handsome section of the trail.

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Would Sam Lancaster have approved of a wire mesh gabion wall..?

Another sore thumb in this forest section is a rusty mesh fence (below) along the freeway right-of-way that should have at least been painted, if not completely replaced as part of the project. Maybe ODOT still has plans to replace this eyesore?

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Nope, Sam Lancaster wouldn’t go for this…

As the new section of the HCRH State Trail approaches Warren Creek, it enters a significant cut section to maintain its gentle grade. Thankfully, a huge anthill along this section was spared, one of the interesting curiosities along the former soft trail that used to pass through this forest.

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Hydro-seeded cut slope and the big anthill near Warren Creek

This following view is from July, when construction was still underway and the ant colony was no doubt thankful for the protective fence:

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The giant anthill lives!

The view below was taken during the construction looks east at the cut section along the new trail. Because the rustic forest trail that once passed through this area was completely destroyed by the new HCRH trail, the reconfigured landscape will be a shock for hikers who hiked the trail in the past. Though hydro-seeded with grass, this section could benefit from some re-vegetation efforts to further speed up healing.

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The cut grade near Warren Creek under construction in July

Beyond the cut section, the new route crosses the original channel of Warren Creek, and for those with a sharp eye, a pair of cobble foundations for early homesteads that once lined the creek. Here, the trail reaches a half-circle bench where an all-access side trail curves up to the viewpoint of Hole-in-the-Wall Falls (more on that later in this article).

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Half-circle bench serves as the jump-off point to the Hole-in-the-Wall viewpoint

It’s unclear if interpretive signs will be added to this area, but at one time the story of how Warren Creek was diverted in 1939 was planned for the spot where the new trail crosses the old, dry creek bed.

Another new trail sign is also located at the all-access spur trail to Hole-in-the-Wall Falls, as this is also the route to the Starvation Ridge and Defiance Trails. This sign also includes a mysterious reference to Gorge Trail 400, further suggesting that a re-numbering of trails in the area is in the works. A large, multi-trunked bigleaf maple was also spared at this junction.

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Bigleaf maple spared… and another mystery reference to Trail 400..?

The following view is looking from the new HCRH State Trail toward the Hole-in-the-Wall spur trail, showing the proximity to Warren Falls. The green hydro-seeded area in the photo is where the construction staging area for the project, underscoring the missed opportunity to restore Warren Falls as part of the project – it was just a few yards beyond the staging area.

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So very close: Warren Falls from the main construction staging area

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Staging area during construction in July – the last time we’ll see heavy equipment this close to Warren Falls for generations?

The humble elderberry (below) in the middle of the staging area was spared by ODOT, a nice consideration in a project that did impact a lot of trees. Hopefully, there are plans to expand native plantings here, as this area was covered with invasive Himalayan blackberries for decades before the trail project and will surely revert to invasive species without a deliberate restoration effort.

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This apparently well-connected elderberry dodged the ODOT bulldozers!

Moving west, the new HCRH State Trail segment passes through another forested section where the trail rises on fill necessary to bring it to grade with a handsome new bridge over Warren Creek (visible in the distance in the view, below). This is an especially attractive section of trail.

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Looking west along the attractive new trail section approaching the Warren Creek Bridge

For some reason, many of the trees that were cut for this new section of trail were left piled along the base of the fill (below). The fill slope has been hydro-seeded, so it seems unlikely that the more work is planned to remove or repurpose the log piles, so apparently the were left in this manner on purpose?

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Piled logs along the elevated grade approaching Warren Creek Bridge

Looking back to the construction period last summer, you can also see the good work ODOT did to cut back English ivy that was rampant in this area. While ivy was left intact on the forest floor, it was cleared from dozens of trees in this section of the trail.

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Invasive English ivy was trimmed from dozens of trees near Warren Creek

The highlight of the new HCRH trail segment is where the route crosses Warren Creek. Here, a handsome new bridge faithfully echoes the design ethic of Samuel Lancaster, but is probably more elaborate than the original bridge constructed at Warren Creek in 1916. Lancaster’s bridge was destroyed when the first version of the modern highway was built in 1950.

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The handsome new Warren Creek Bridge is the jewel of the new trail segment

Though no visual record exists, the original Warren Creek Bridge was modest in length, at just 18 feet, and likely resembled the surviving bridge at Gorton Creek to the west, or possibly the original bridge at Viento Creek to the east (shown below).

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The original Warren Creek Bridge probably followed one of these designs

The design of the original Warren Creek Bridge inadvertently helped lead the Highway Department to bypass Warren Falls, as stream debris was clogging the bridge opening. The 1941 project files also describe the original bridge being “replaced in a different location” as part of the diversion project, so there may have been two version of the original bridge over Warren Creek before the modern highway was constructed in the 1950s.

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Warren Creek Bridge under construction in July

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Pavement texture samplers being tested for the project

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Looking west across the new Warren Creek Bridge

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Railing detail and the view downstream from Warren Creek Bridge

Construction of the new HCRH bridge over Warren Creek was an involved undertaking, with the surprisingly wide span leaving plenty of room for a (someday) restored Warren Falls to move 70+ years of accumulated rock and woody debris down the stream channel.

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Built to last, with plenty of room for Warren Creek to once again move rock and log debris down its channel… someday…

There’s nothing natural about Warren Creek in this area, as it looks (and is) more like a drainage ditch. This is because original streambed is now a dry ravine several hundred yards to the east, and the current streambed is where the Highway Department moved the creek decades ago, when the modern highway was first built in the 1950s.

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Ditch-like, man-made channel of Warren Creek as viewed from the new bridge

As described in the first part of this article, the someday restoration of Warren Falls will once again allow rocks and woody debris to migrate into the lower channel, eventually transforming the “ditch” into a healthy stream (below) that can fully support endangered salmon and steelhead.

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What a healthy Warren Creek might look like from the bridge, someday…

[click here for a larger version]

While ODOT missed the larger opportunity to help this stream restoration along when it declined to restore Warren Falls, the agency also missed the easy opportunity to simply add a few boulders and logs to the section of Warren Creek near the bridge when heavy equipment was in the area. That’s too bad, but perhaps the OPRD will someday enhance this stream section as part of managing the new trail.

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Looking west from near the Warren Creek Bridge to the Lancaster Falls viewpoint

From Warren Creek, the new trail follows another fill section to a mostly obstructed viewpoint of Lancaster Falls on Wonder Creek from a small seating area. This viewpoint (below) could use some light pruning to reveal the falls, and perhaps something that’s still in the works by OPRD.

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Lancaster Falls viewpoint

One oddity about Wonder Creek is that it mostly disappears into ground before reaching the culvert that carries Warren Creek under I-84 and to the Columbia River. This is partly due to the modest flow from spring-fed Wonder Creek, but also because the slopes below the falls are mostly composed of unconsolidated talus covered with a thin layer of soil and vegetation. So, most of the time the stream is simply absorbed into the water table below the falls.

Yet, in high runoff periods, the new state trail will accommodate the flow with extensive drainage features designed to carry Wonder Creek under the fill section and to the Warren Creek freeway culvert.

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Trail construction near the Lancaster Falls viewpoint in July

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Lancaster Falls viewpoint under construction in July

Another oddity of Lancaster Falls is its illusive nature. Though thousands of hikers each year view the modest, 20-foot lower tier of the falls where it spills across the Defiance Trail, few know of it’s full extent – and perhaps wonder why Samuel Lancaster wasn’t honored with a more spectacular landmark.

This is the view (below) of Lancaster Falls that most hikers see today, and this this is also the portion of the falls that can be glimpsed through the trees from the new HCRH trail viewpoint:

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Lancaster Falls as most know it, along the Defiance Trail

But viewed from across the Columbia River, along Washington’s Highway 14, Lancaster Falls takes on a completely different scale. This view shows the lower 20-foot tier that most know as “Lancaster Falls” completely dwarfed by the towering 300-foot extent of the falls:

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The full extent of Lancaster Falls as viewed from the Washington side of the Columbia

While it’s possible to scramble to the base of the main tier of Lancaster Falls, the slopes are unstable and already being impacted by off-trail visitors, so it’s probably best that only a most portion of the falls is (somewhat) visible from the new HCRH route. Hopefully, interpretive signage is in the works for the viewpoint that tells the story of Samuel Lancaster..?

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1920s view of the HCRH from Lindsey Creek looking toward Wind Mountain

From the Lancaster Falls viewpoint, the new trail heads west to a section where it once again follows the shoulder of I-84 to Lindsey Creek and the end of new construction. ODOT is working the next trail segment, which will connect from Lindsey Creek to the Wyeth Campground, crossing the base of famously unstable Shellrock Mountain along the way.

Hole-in-the-Wall Falls Spur Trail

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Original concept for the Hole-in-the-Wall Falls viewpoint

One of the design highlights of the new HCRH trail section is a short all-access spur tail to an overlook of Hole-in-the-Wall Falls, the man-made outflow tunnel that continues to drain Warren Falls of its water. The completed overlook has been scaled back from its original design (shown above), and now features one of the signature circular seating areas, complete with a picnic table (below).

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Hole-in-the-Wall Falls viewpoint

A small plaque at the viewpoint identifies Hole-in-the-Wall Falls, which until now has not been an officially recognized name or has appeared on any official maps. A nice nod to the origin if the “falls” is the byline “Created 1939”. Hopefully, there will be future interpretive displays here, as the story of Warren Falls would be a great addition to this overlook.

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Hole-in-the-Wall Falls viewpoint

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Hole-in-the-Wall Falls plaque

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Hole-in-the-Wall Falls viewpoint under construction in July

The Starvation Ridge Trail picks up from the south side of the Hole-in-the-Wall Falls overlook, heading across a footbridge over Warren Creek.

A closer look near the footbridge (below) reveals a surprising disappointment: the stump of a streamside Douglas fir cut improve the view of the falls. It’s too bad that the tree wasn’t simply limbed to provide a view, as it was one of the few larger trees stabilizing the banks of Warren Creek.

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Hole-in-the-Wall Falls bridge… and stump?

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Unfortunate remains of the offending Douglas fir along Warren Creek

While it’s disappointing to think about the opportunities missed at Warren Falls, the Hole-in-the-Wall Falls overlook and beautiful new Warren Creek Bridge, are still a big a step in the right direction toward someday moving Warren Creek from neglected afterthought to a valued resource that deserves to be restored. ODOT deserves major kudos for their thoughtful work on this section of trail!

“Love what they’ve done with the place…”

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Heavy construction of the new “trail” in July looked more like a road to many hikers

Last summer I encountered another hiker while surveying the progress of the new HCRH trail in the Warren Creek area. He was making his way to the Defiance Trail, and when he saw me taking photos, shouted angrily “Love what they’ve done with the place!”

I’ve heard this reaction to the State Trail from many hikers over the years, as avid hikers are often aghast at what they see as more of a “road” than trail. The scope of construction impacts on the natural landscape of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (CRGNSA) and the millions in public funds being spent on the project rankles hikers who don’t see themselves actually using the trail.

Many hikers are also mystified as to how this project can received tens of million in funding while other, heavily overused Gorge trails are falling apart for lack of adequate funding.

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Extensive cut and fill necessary to maintain trail grade meant a wide construction swath

These reactions are understandable, if misguided. The restoration of the surviving HCRH and the future trail segments that will soon complete the original route from Troutdale to The Dalles is an epic effort of ambition and vision in an era when both are rare quantities.

When the route is completed, it will become a world-class cycling attraction, and it is already drawing visitors from around the world. Guided bicycle tours have become a thriving business in the Gorge because of ODOT’s commitment to bringing the HCRH State Trail vision to reality, and businesses in Gorge towns are already seeing the benefits.

Other projects to promote the trail are also in the works. ODOT’s Gorge Hubs project is a new partnership with six cities in the Gorge to provide traveler information for trail users and boost the local economy. The Friends of the Gorge have launched the Gorge Towns to Trails project, a complementary effort to the HCRH State Trail to connect Gorge communities to public lands via trails.

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Tourism in the Gorge is as old as the historic highway, itself. This is the Lindsey Creek Inn that once stood where the newly completed HCRH State Trail approaches Lindsey Creek

Plenty of local visitors will continue to use the HCRH State Trail as the project nears completion over the next few years, but the real benefit for Gorge communities is from visitors coming from outside the region. Unlike local visitors, tourists coming from elsewhere will book hotel rooms, purchase meals and take home locally-made products and art from the Gorge to memorialize their trip. These visitors make a much larger contribution to the Gorge economy than a local visitor who might stop by a brewpub on the way back from a day trip.

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Gorge sunset from near Starvation Creek along the newly completed HCRH State Trail

A 2011 National Park Service study of tourism dollars shows outside visitors spending anywhere from 7 to 12 times the amount that local visitors spend on a visit to a given park, bringing hundreds of millions to local economies at many parks. There’s no reason why the Gorge can’t better manage the our already heavy demand from local visitors to the Gorge to allow for more outside visitors drawn by the HCRH State Trail to spend their dollars here.

The bigger picture is that anyone opposed to seeing casinos or bottled water plants in the Gorge should be part of supporting a tourism economy that builds on the scenery. Yes, tourism impacts must be managed to protect the Gorge for future generations, but the health of the Gorge economy is the essential ingredient to providing these protections over the long term.

The HCRH State Trail is part of that formula, and it deserves enthusiastic support from anyone who loves the Gorge. If you own a bicycle (or pair of walking shoes), give it a try — and then recommend it as an exciting new vacation destination to distant friends and family!

Warren Falls: A Postscript (Part 1 of 2)

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Warren Falls lives! Well, on a few days each year, after heavy rainfall…

The campaign to restore Warren Falls in the Columbia River Gorge is over, at least for now.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is putting the final touches on the latest section of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail, from Starvation Creek to Lindsey Creek (more on that in part two of this article), and undoing their diversion tunnel at Warren Falls was not part of the deal.

While Warren Creek now has an especially handsome bridge on the new state trail, the dry cliffs of beautiful Warren Falls (below) will continue to be a ghostly testament to the arrogance and carelessness of our modern age – except on those rare stormy days each winter when the falls briefly reappears (above).

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Warren Falls as it exists most of the time… for now…

Restoring the falls would have been the perfect companion to the HCRH State Trail project, itself an epic restoration project. Samuel Lancaster would surely have approved, too. It was a once in a century opportunity to do the work while heavy equipment was right in front of the falls. But if fighting City Hall is an uphill battle, then the castle walls at ODOT are still more foreboding.

The agency isn’t a monolith. There was encouragement and support from sympathetic professionals at ODOT along the way, albeit plenty of opposition from others. In the end, the agency formerly known only as the Oregon Highway Department revealed its roots, reluctant to step beyond its narrow right-of-way.

And yet the Historic Highway State Trail project, itself, is a bold step forward from simply building highways, and one the agency has been truly committed to. Thus, I’m hopeful about ODOT’s future, and the new state trail has much for us to be proud of.

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So very close… but not this time…

[click here for a larger view]

Perhaps most disappointing is ODOT’s lack of ownership and sense of responsibility for a stream diversion project that today would be considered a crime against nature. Even when Warren Creek was diverted and the falls destroyed in 1939, it was jarringly at odds with the vision and reverence for the landscape of Samuel Lancaster’s Columbia River Highway, and should have sent up red flags for the Highway Department.

Still more astonishing was learning during the course of this project that none other than Conde McCullough – engineering deity to many as the designer of Oregon’s most treasured highway bridges of the 1920s and 30s – signed off on the diversion project while serving as chief engineer!

Worse, we also learned along the way that it was completely illegal to destroy the falls, even back in 1939, as revealed in this article on the blog.  Oregon wasn’t a very big place back then, so it’s hard to believe the law protecting the falls went unnoticed at the time… but the truth on that point will likely never be known.

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Warren Falls flows briefly in 2015

Perhaps the greatest irony in the Warren Falls saga is that the original diversion project was designed to protect one the bridges on Sam Lancaster’s famous new road – by destroying one of the more spectacular waterfalls along the route. Lancaster died in March 1941, so it’s doubtful that he was even aware of the project as it moved forward in 1939. Let’s hope so, anyway.

Today, the crumbling diversion dam and tunnel are still listed as “assets” by ODOT, but are really just orphans, and now all but forgotten by the agency for the foreseeable future. Short of Oregon Parks and Recreation (OPRD) taking on the decommissioning as part of some sort of larger Warren Creek restoration project, the most likely outcome is continued deterioration of the diversion structure until nature finally reclaims it.

So, the campaign to restore Warren Falls is over… or is it?

Postscript… and premonition?

After years of attending meetings, writing letters, giving tours to all manner of advocates and officials and even a segment on OPB’s “Oregon Field Guide”, there weren’t many stones left to turn in coaxing ODOT to bring Warren Falls back to its original glory. On the surface, there’s very little to show for the effort.

But is that really true? It depends on how you define victory.

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OPB crew at Warren Falls in 2012

Yes, in the immediate future ODOT will continue to treat Warren Creek like a glorified storm culvert, and the former Warren Falls will continue to be a depository for “trash” (what the original engineers called the rock and woody debris we now know are essential to a stream health) separated from the creek’s flow. That’s a shame, and a missed opportunity for the agency to show that it has evolved from its “Highway Department” past.

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OPB crew above Warren Falls in 2012

But over the past five years, tens of thousands of people have learned the story of Warren Falls thanks to the OPB coverage, thousands more have viewed the WyEast Blog stories here and on the Restore Warren Falls Facebook page, and hundreds have visited the falls site, with more making the side trip each year to pay homage to what once was – and will be, again.

Until they see the silent cliffs where Warren Falls once flowed, most of these visitors have no idea that today’s Hole-in-the-Wall Falls is simply a man-made attraction that came at the cost of destroying Warren Falls. Armed with the history of Warren Falls, few who visit can view it as anything less than an environmental tragedy.

So, despite losing this round, Warren Falls has a lot of new friends, and a lot of people who love the Gorge have gained a better understanding of the lasting cost of “progress” and the chore of undoing our handiwork, even in places we seek to protect most.

Which brings me to…

(Not so) Secrets of the Monkey Wrench Gang…

Oh, how I wish I could share all of the schemes for liberating Warren Falls that have come my way over the past five years! They range from temporary performance art to more permanent alterations that would probably be illegal… if any governing entities were actually concerned about the fate of Warren Falls.

Still more surprising is the range of Monkey-Wrench-Gang-wannabes who proposed taking the restoration of Warren Falls into their own hands: you’ll just have to use your imagination, but some were rather prominent folks who left me speechless with their audacious plans.

So, I’ll share a few highlights, with the strict caveat from the WyEast Blog Legal Department:

NONE OF THESE ACTIVITIES APPEARS TO BE LEGAL, at least not without prior permission from the OPRD or ODOT (and good luck with that, by the way), and therefore the following DOES NOT CONDONE OR ENDORSE these ideas in any way!

Whew. Okay, well one of the most popular schemes is to roll plastic tarps over the giant “trash rack” that forms the screen over the Warren diversion tunnel. This would allow the pristine waters of Warren Creek to ride a plastic liner above the tunnel and over the natural falls. Sort of a giant slippery-slide, but with a real surprise at the end!

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The massive “trash rack” that turned Warren Falls dry in 1939

Someday (on my deathbed, or possibly at the dedication of a restored Warren Falls?) I may reveal an especially prominent individual who personally pitched a version of the slippery slide to me – truly, one of the more unexpected twists in this five-year saga!

Most versions of the slippery slide focused on getting a really good look at what an unaltered Warren Falls looked like via a temporary restoration. But Warren Creek gets pretty wild and wooly in winter, so this would likely be a very brief restoration.

There’s also the question of what would happen to the tarps, once swept away, as there is a lot of potential for adding more man-made junk to an already defaced stream (assuming the tarps didn’t get hung up on the cliffs or left hanging form the outflow to Hole-in-the-Wall Falls).

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OPB’s Michael Bendixen filming the “trash rack” above the brink of Warren Falls in 2012

Others suggested (WyEast Blog Legal Department repeat notice: not condoning this!) speeding up the “weathering” process that has already begun to expose and compromise the steel beams that form the “trash rack” at the top of the falls.

It turns out that in just the ten years since I’ve been advocating to restore the falls, this part of the diversion has shown noticeable deterioration, and seems to be speeding up. It turns out the top of the “trash rack” is the weakest point in the design, and is steadily unraveling. So, I’m not sure Mother Nature needs much help at this point, despite the enthusiastic volunteers out there.

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OPB’s Michael Bendixen on top of the “trash rack” that rests on a cobble dam that is gradually eroding away

These photos show the vulnerability of the steel “trash rack” beams where the mortar that once fully embedded them above the diversion tunnel has been significantly compromised since 1939 by the relentless flow Warren Creek:

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A closer look at the lip of the “trash rack” showing the masonry cap on the cobble dam

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The masonry cap has worn thin where it anchors the top of the “trash rack” and a small garden flourishes where debris has clogged the giant grate

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Creative types see an opportunity to speed up the demise of the “trash rack” where these steel beams are almost freed from the concrete cap by weathering

The motive for speeding up the release of the beams varies among schemes and schemers.

One version is to allow enough stream material to pass under the protective “trash rack” to plug up the surprisingly narrow diversion tunnel leading to Hole-in-the-Wall Falls. Which is just 60” in diameter. This is probably what Mother Nature has in mind, though it may take awhile.

Another angle on speeding up the weathering at the top of the steel beams is to allow larger debris (logs, large rocks) to wedge between the beams, thus acting as levers to literally tear it apart with hydraulic pressure during high stream flow. To a large extent, this is already happening, as at least half the rack is plugged with smaller cobbles that are twisting and bending the steel beams with the effects of freeze and thaw during the winter months.

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Vince Patton from Oregon Field Guide inspecting the access vault on the west end of the “trash rack”

At least one Warren Falls fan spotted the open vault above the west end of the diversion structure and suggested diverting the creek into this hole (WyEast Blog Legal Department reprise: this is not an endorsement! Plus, you might fall into a tunnel that spit out as a man-made waterfall!), where it could move debris large enough to plug the bypass tunnel. I’m not positive, but I think solid basalt prevents this from happening – either through creative monkey-wrenching or courtesy Mother Nature. But I was impressed at the attention to detail from those who love Warren Falls!

As much as I enjoyed hearing these inspired pitches for a DIY restoration of Warren Falls, one of the reasons I advocated for removing the “trash rack” structure and filling the bypass tunnel in an orderly way was to avoid having a bunch of steel debris entombed at the lip of this beautiful falls. I’d still much prefer a thoughtful decommissioning of the diversion over a disorganized mess – whether triggered by humans or nature.

We owe it to future generations to do this right. And who knows, we may still get the chance!

What the Future Holds: Warren’s Cousins

Short of an unforeseen intervention, the restoration of Warren Falls by forces of nature will take awhile. But it turns out that Warren Falls has some similarly trod-upon cousins in the area who have suffered flagrant abuse, then been abandoned to recover on their own.

The good news: in all cases, nature is winning… albeit, very slowly.

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White River Falls needlessly goes dry each summer, thanks to a derelict Pacific Power diversion that sends the river around the falls (visible dropping in on the right).

A spectacular example is White River Falls, located in a state park by that name on the east side of Mount Hood. The falls is just upstream from the confluence of the White River with the Deschutes River.

More than a century ago, the Wasco Milling Company diverted much of the falls to a giant pipeline that fed a powerhouse downstream. Energy from the powerhouse was transmitted to The Dalles. Wasco Milling later sold the plant to Pacific Power, and it was finally shut down in 1960, when the land was transferred to the state of Oregon.

Pacific Power left quite a mess behind. The abandoned power plant, numerous pipelines and the diversion dam all still survive on state park land today. During high runoff in winter and spring the diversion channel is overwhelmed, and the former glory of White River Falls is on display. But by late summer, the entire flow is still diverted into the bypass channel, tumbling around the falls where the diversion pipe once existed.

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The derelict diversion channel at White River Falls

In this way, the situation at White River is not unlike present-day Hole-in-the-Wall Falls burping out of the Warren Falls bypass tunnel where it once connected to a flume that carried the creek over the old highway and to the Columbia River.

And like Warren Falls, the bypass channel “falls” at White River is a sad, ugly duckling compared to the magnificent original falls. But while there is no plan to formally decommission the diversion at White River Falls, the approach to the diversion dam is increasingly clogged with silt and debris, and should eventually fail, finally closing the chapter on the Wasco Milling Company era.

A few years ago, I reported on a now-scrapped scheme by Wasco County officials to reboot the White River generating plant, proving once again the wise words of John Muir: “Nothing dollarable is safe.” Even in an Oregon state park, it turns out.

A closer cousin to Warren Falls is popular Bridal Veil Falls, located at the far west end of the Columbia Gorge. Though few of the thousands of visitors who hike to the base of Bridal Veil Falls each year can even imagine what this spot looked like just a few decades ago, it was one of the most heavily degraded areas in the Gorge.

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The lower tier of famous Bridal Veil Falls was altered for mill operations! Who knew?

The mill town of Bridal Veil was once located just 100 yards below the falls, though the town is now nothing more than concrete foundations and rusted cables covered in moss and undergrowth. In this eastward view (below) from the early 1900s, today’s Bridal Veil exit from I-84 to Multnomah Falls would be located near the buildings at the far end of the mill town.

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The mill town of Bridal Veil in the early 1900s

The pile of rough-cut timber in the foreground marks the terminus of log flumes that fed the Bridal Veil mill. At least three timber flumes carried logs and rough lumber to the mill from the slopes of Larch Mountain. One flume closely followed Bridal Veil Creek with the kind of roller coaster ride theme park “log rides” have tried to replicate ever since.

In the scene below (from about 1900) the audacious scale of the flume is evident as it courses down the canyon, about a mile above Bridal Veil Falls, and just below Middle Bridal Veil Falls. The area had already been heavily logged by this time and the stream was viewed as nothing more than a steady water source and convenient path for moving old-growth timber to the mill.

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The main flume followed a ravaged Bridal Veil canyon to the mill

This view (below) of the converging flumes coming into the mill site conceals Bridal Veil Falls, which is located directly beneath the flumes. Today’s trail to the falls would have travelled under all three flumes where they converge in this scene.

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Flumes over Bridal Veil Falls (the falls is located directly below the flumes)

Bridal Veil Falls not only had a trio of log flumes passing overhead, the falls itself was also modified by the mill, presumably to carry water to the mill (though this is just my own speculation – I’d love to hear from mill historians who know more about this!)

The photo below shows the falls in the late 1800s, just before the lower tier had been raised about 15 feet, creating a pool below the upper tier and allowing for a diversion structure (?) to presumably carry a piped portion of the creek to the nearby mill.

During periods of low water today, you can still see parts of the diversion structure at Bridal Veil Falls poking from the water (below).

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Lower tier of Bridal Veil Falls as it exists today

Here are detailed views of the diversion structure that raised the lower tier of Bridal Veil Falls to what we see today:

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A closer look at what seems to be a cobble dam that raised the height of the lower tier of Bridal Veil Falls…

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…and a still closer look…

This rare view from the early 1900s shows the diversion structure already in ruins or perhaps under construction? In either case, its purpose only lasted a short period, and in this way the falls is a kindred spirit to Warren Falls, where the short-lived diversion functioned for barely a decade before becoming obsolete and abandoned.

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The cobble dam shortly after construction… or perhaps after it was abandoned?

Today, there are still a lot of concrete and steel reminders of the mill town, though they’re often hidden in plain sight, under layers of rust, moss and ferns. For example, this view (below) of the stream below Bridal Veil Falls reveals a “boulder” that is actually a concrete footing and an intake pipe for one of the mill ponds.

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Mill relics hiding under moss at Bridal Veil Falls

Other large waterfalls on Bridal Veil Creek were impacted by the mill operation, but have recovered dramatically in the decades since the mill finally closed in the 1960s. Here are then-and-now photos of Middle and Upper Bridal Veil Falls:

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[click here for a larger version]

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[click here for a larger version]

In more recent years, stolen automobiles have periodically been pushed from the cliffs along historic Palmer Mill Road into Bridal Veil canyon. Some of these dumped vehicles have been pulled from the canyon, but others are too difficult to reach, and are slowly fading into the forest.

While they have undoubtedly released engine fluids into the creek and have plastic parts that will last for decades, nature and Bridal Veil Creek are nonetheless making short work of the rest of these vehicles.

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Moss and ferns consuming a dumped Hyundai Santa Fe just above Upper Bridal Veil Falls (photo courtesy Jamen Lee)

Unlike Warren Falls, the waterfalls on Bridal Veil Creek were never completely diverted from their natural streambed, yet the overall impact of logging and milling at Bridal Veil had a much larger impact on the larger watershed than anything Warren Creek endured. The fact that Mother Nature has consumed most of what wasn’t salvaged when the flumes were pulled from Bridal Veil canyon in the mid-1900s is an inspiration for the ongoing recovery of Warren Falls.

In time, all traces of our impact on the environment really can heal – provided we allow it to happen. Responsibly cleaning up after ourselves would be a more noble path, of course, but at least nature seems to forgive us in time… so far.

Warren Falls Lives!

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False alarm! Horsetail does look a lot like Warren Falls, though…

A few weeks ago, the local waterfall hunting community had a brief moment of excitement when a vintage 1918 film seemed to include a rare view of Warren Falls! But after looking more closely at the images, it turned out to be Horsetail Falls in very low flow. So, the hunt for a photograph of Warren Falls before the 1939 diversion project continues.

But the similarity was real, so the following is a rough guess of what we might see – and perhaps, sooner than we think: Warren Falls flowing again, returning its amazing amphitheater to mossy green, as the diversion structure continues to crumble into history.

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For waterfall devotees, this is Horsetail Falls superimposed on Warren’s dry cliff with the reversed base of Dry Creek Falls providing the foreground.

[click here for a large version]

Of course, we already know what a small amount of flow over Warren Falls looks like during high runoff events, as shown in previous photos in this article. What we don’t know is what the full force of Warren Creek might look like coming over this 120-foot escarpment, and especially what it might do with 77 years of accumulated stream debris piled at the base of the natural falls.

We have a pretty good idea, though, based on recent dam removals around the Pacific Northwest. It turns out that streams are surprisingly quick to redistribute accumulated debris and restore themselves to their natural stream state, as we’ve seen with dam removals on the Hood, Little Sandy and White Salmon rivers.

Today, Warren Creek below falls has been reduced to ditch, radically moved by ODOT from its former channel in the 1950s and devoid of the rocks and woody debris essential to a healthy stream since 1939, thanks to the “trash rack”.

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Add some rocks and logs to lower Warren Creek and it might look like this someday

[click here for a large version]

When Warren Falls returns, the huge pile of stream debris will begin to move downstream, and the debris-starved lower section of Warren Creek will develop the pools and eddies necessary for salmon and steelhead to spawn, as imagined above.

The good news is that the new HCRH State Trail passes high and wide over Warren Creek, ensuring that the creek can evolve back to a natural state in the future without a redux of the 1930s highway impacts that led to the diversion of Warren Falls.

When will Warren Falls return? Not just now… but perhaps sooner than we think.

Meanwhile, we wait… and watch.

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(Part two of this article will focus on a review of the newly completed Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail segment from Starvation Creek to Wonder Creek, and passing Warren Falls)

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 To revisit the complete history of the Restore Warren Falls project, here are earlier WyEast blog articles on the subject:

 An Overdue Warren Falls Update (and a bombshell!)

“Warren Falls Lives… Again?”

Warren Falls Solutions

“Warren Falls, we’re ready for your closeup…”

 Warren Falls Mystery… Solved!

Restoring Warren Creek Falls

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Warren Falls on Oregon Field Guide

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Restore Warren Falls 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.

The High Cost of Free Parking (Part 1 of 2)

The notorious Angels Rest Trailhead on a typical winter weekend

The notorious Angels Rest Trailhead on a typical winter weekend

This is a two-part article 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 the principles could apply to our public lands, as well.

The first part of this series examines the parking crisis facing the trailheads of the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood, while the second part will explore some possible solutions — none of them easy to realize until the true costs of free parking are confronted.
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Wall-to-wall hikers are the norm on Dog Mountain in spring (The Oregonian)

Wall-to-wall hikers are the norm on Dog Mountain in spring (The Oregonian)

The Forest Service announced plans this month to redesign the huge parking area at the Dog Mountain trailhead, on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, to address safety issues. The Forest Service plans to stripe the currently unmanaged, free-for-all paved shoulder with designed parking spaces for 75 cars. This is a significant reduction from the roughly 200 cars that pack into the trailhead on busy spring weekends.

To compensate for the reduced parking, the Forest Service is teaming up with Skamania County’s Gorge West End Transit (WET) bus to provide a shuttle from Stevenson to Dog Mountain. The shuttle will run Saturdays and Sundays from April 16 to June 12, the peak season for the hike when the wildflower meadows that make the hike famous are at their peak. The shuttles will run 10 times daily from 10:15 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the one-way fare will be a modest $1.00.

A rare quiet day at the huge Dog Mountain trailhead parking area (The Oregonian)

A rare quiet day at the huge Dog Mountain trailhead parking area (The Oregonian)

The predictable headline in The Oregonian story covering of the announcement screamed “Already hate parking at Dog Mountain? It’s about to get worse”, and the reaction from hikers in social media has pretty much echoed that simplistic, knee-jerk reaction.

But will it really be worse? Seventy-five cars at the redesigned trailhead still translates into roughly 150 people on the trail at any given time — hardly a wilderness experience, and a huge improvement over the 400+ hikers you might currently expect along the 7-mile circuit to the summit from trailhead parking capacity, alone. Some hikers will use the shuttles, but more likely, people will simply go elsewhere — a point I’ll cover in the second part in this series.

Hikers are usually people who love nature, so it’s fair to assume that few hikers would want to see their public lands trampled by unmanaged mobs. And yet, much of the reaction to limiting the number of cars that can park at Dog Mountain has been just the opposite — anger and outrage at any sort of limit on parking or access.

So, why this disconnect? We’ll explore that question in the second part of the series, too, as well as the necessary solutions to overwhelming demand for trails in the Gorge and on Mount Hood in the second part of this series.

First, a closer look at the problems that exist in today’s status quo.

A Typical Weekend…

It’s not news to Gorge regulars that weekends along the Historic Columbia River Highway in “Waterfall Alley” have become outlandish traffic jams, with cars parked anywhere they will fit, and trails literally overrun with thousands of hikers. Local photographer T.J. Thorne filmed a clip in the vicinity of Oneonta Gorge that gives a flavor of what our precious Gorge experience has devolved:

This isn’t fun for anyone. It’s a tragedy of the commons in the making, and tarnishes what could (and should) be a wonderful outdoor experience for people looking for some relief from their daily, urban routines.

How did it get this bad? Rapid growth in the Portland metropolitan is part of the answer: while the Gorge trail system is only slightly larger than it was in 1940, the Portland-Vancouver region has exploded from just over 500,000 residents then to more than 2 million today. Compounding the growth is Portland’s emerging lifestyle economy, whereby new industries locating here are increasingly do so because their workers want easy access to our amazing outdoors.

So, one answer is more trails — something I promote regularly in this blog, and something that can be done responsibly and in a way that greatly expands opportunities for people to have a positive outdoor experience. But getting there will take major reforms in how the Forest Service and Columbia Gorge Commission, in particular, think about recreation (both are surprisingly hostile to new trails) as well as restoring funds to gutted federal trail budgets.

Forest Service trail legend Bruce Dungey and his crews are struggling to stem the damage from overuse of Gorge trails

Forest Service trail legend Bruce Dungey and his crews are struggling to stem the damage from overuse of Gorge trails

The federal budget problem is real: consider that Forest Service crews in the Gorge are now about one-fourth the size they were as recently as 1990, and the scope of the trail funding crisis is clear enough. Without volunteers from organizations like Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO), Washington Trails Association, Friends of the Gorge and the Pacific Crest Trail Association our trails would literally be falling apart and impassable from fallen trees and slides. Mount Hood faces a similar backlog and dependence on volunteers to simply keep the trails open.

Not Playing Well Together?

A good share of the overcrowding and also comes from a failure of public land agencies to work together on common solutions. This is especially true in the Gorge, but also on Mount Hood, where the key players are the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) and the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) .

Consider the trailhead parking policy along on the Oregon side of the Gorge: parking at Latourell Falls, Shepperd’s Dell, Wahkeena Falls, Multnomah Falls, Oneonta Gorge, Horsetail Falls, Elowah Falls, Starvation Creek and Mitchell Point is free, no permit required.

The small, free parking area at Elowah Falls is overflowing by dozens of cars, even on rainy winter days

The small, free parking area at Elowah Falls is overflowing by dozens of cars, even on rainy winter days

Meanwhile, parking at Wahclella Falls, Bridge of the Gods, Eagle Creek, Wyeth and Herman Creek requires a Northwest Forest Pass ($30 annual pass or $5 day pass). This can’t be explained simply by state vs. federal management differences, as the Forest Service operates several of the trailheads where free parking is provided, and the state operates both free and fee-based sites, with State Parks at Rooster Rock, Benson Lake and Viento requiring a $5.00 day-use free.

On the Washington side, trailheads provided by the DNR at places like Beacon Rock and Hamilton Mountain require a special DNR permit ($30 annual pass or $10 day pass), while Forest Service trailheads like Dog Mountain require a Northwest Forest Pass.

Confused yet?

It gets worse: on Mount Hood, the Forest Service is well down the troubling path of commercializing both campgrounds and trailheads to “concessionaires”, who in turn, get to set their own fees for day use, which includes parking at trailheads. Several of these trailheads are also posted with a Northwest Forest Pass requirement, so it’s unclear if paying one is the same as paying the other, or even whether being ticketed by a “concessionaire” has any legal standing.

The price to park at Mount Hood’s snow park lots is the same any day of the week, overloading parking areas and the Loop Highway

The price to park at Mount Hood’s snow park lots is the same any day of the week, overloading parking areas and the Loop Highway

Meanwhile, show up at the same trailhead on Mount Hood between November and April, and it might be a Snow Park site, which has its own permit, operated by the Oregon Department of Transportation ($25 annual or $4 day). Just to make things interesting, “agents” who sell Snow Park permits can charge an additional service fee — something you learn when you stop by one of the grocery stores or service stations that offer these permits.

This amazing cocktail of free and permit parking is a major point of annoyance to hikers, both for the inherent confusion and the actual cost of buying multiple passes to use trails in the same area. That’s bad public relations for the land agencies and bad news for the public. But the tangle of policies and permits is especially bad for tourism, with visitors unfamiliar with the area forced to decipher these overlapping regulations.

Dumb Fees vs. Smart Fees

As frustrating as this crazy quilt of fees (or lack of fees) is for the public, the effect is worse when you consider that most of the permitting program do little to actually manage crowding and protect trails from overuse. Why? Because they are all flat fees that don’t recognize that demand for recreation fluctuates wildly by season and day of week on both Mount Hood and in the Gorge.

The Forest Service will soon build this new trailhead for popular Mirror Lake - a chance to try a different parking approach?

The Forest Service will soon build this new trailhead for popular Mirror Lake – a chance to try a different parking approach?

In The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup describes how building enough free parking to meet narrow peaks in demand results in oversized, mostly empty parking lots while promoting even worse crowding during peak periods. And yet, there are fairly straightforward tools for managing parking to avoid these effects on our cities.

Much of what Shoup proposes for cities could be adapted for trails and other activities on our public lands, and that will be the focus of the second part of this series: a set of specific actions that could not only make the outdoor experience for everyone better, but also protect the scenery and trails that we go to the outdoors to experience, and ensure that is will still be here for future generations to enjoy.

To be continued…

A New Vision for Mirror Lake (Part 1 of 3)

Summer evening view of Mount Hood from Mirror Lake

Summer evening view of Mount Hood from Mirror Lake

Big changes are coming to the Mirror Lake Trail on Mount Hood, perhaps the single most visited trail on the mountain. This is the first of three articles on the future of Mirror Lake, and the need for a broader vision to guide recreation in the area.
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As part of the unfortunate widening of the Mount Hood Highway currently underway west of Government Camp (see this article for more on the subject), the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has persuaded the U.S. Forest Service to close the existing, historic trailhead for the Mirror Lake Trail.

ODOT claims safety is the chief concern, a point I will visit later in this series. For now, though, it looks like our highway department will close yet another roadside trailhead in a campaign to gradually morph the Mount Hood Highway into full-fledged freeway.

Going back to the beginning…

Just as Mount Hood generally bears the development pressures of being an hour from Portland, and along transportation corridor that dates to the 1840s, Mirror Lake has long carried the burden of being the closest mountain lake to Portland, and the first easily accessible trailhead along the loop highway.

Because of its proximity, the lake shows up on the earliest maps of the Government Camp area, when the Mount Hood Loop Highway had a very rough, early alignment and was not yet a loop. The original Skyline Trail map (below) from the early 1900s shows Mirror Lake just west of the new trail, and a version of the early loop road before the Laurel Hill switchbacks were built.

1920s-era map of Mount Hood and the Government Camp area

1920s-era map of Mount Hood and the Government Camp area

By the early 1920s, the effort to complete the loop highway was in full swing, including the graceful switchbacks that scaled Laurel Hill (below), the spot where Oregon Trail immigrants had to lower their wagons with ropes because of the steepness of the terrain. Surprisingly, a formal trail to Mirror Lake had not yet been constructed by this time.

1920s map of the first paved alignment of the Mount Hood Loop Highway at Government Camp

1920s map of the first paved alignment of the Mount Hood Loop Highway at Government Camp

Other maps from the early 1900s (below) tell another story about Mirror Lake: it was within the northern extent of the Sherar Burn, a massive fire that had destroyed forests from the Salmon River to Camp Creek. As recently as the 1980s, bleached snags from the fire were standing throughout the Mirror Lake area.

1920s map showing the Sherar Burn extent in the Mirror Lake area

1920s map showing the Sherar Burn extent in the Mirror Lake area

The Sherar Burn of the mid-1800s created vast tracts of huckleberries across the area, and during the early days of the highway, huckleberry pickers were a common sight, selling coffee cans of fresh berries to mountain visitors (below).

Huckleberry pickers in the 1930s at the Little Zigzag River bridge, below Laurel Hill

Huckleberry pickers in the 1930s at the Little Zigzag River bridge, below Laurel Hill

Mirror Lake, itself, looked quite different in the 1920s, too. Today’s tree-rimmed lake was mostly surrounded by burned snags and fields of beargrass and huckleberry in the 1920s (below).

Mirror Lake in the late 1920s

Mirror Lake in the late 1920s

Sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s, a new trail was constructed from the new highway to Mirror Lake. The trail began at a sharp turn on the old highway, traversing above the north shoulder of Yocum Falls on Camp Creek, crossing to the south side of the creek at the spot where the modern trailhead is located today (see maps below).

This lower section (from the bend in the old highway to the modern trailhead) of the original Mirror Lake trail was destroyed just 25 years later, when the modern highway grade cut through the area. This portion of the old highway still exists in this area, accessible from the Laurel Hill historic landmark pullout (currently closed because of the highway widening).

1930s map of the original Mirror Lake Trail

1930s map of the original Mirror Lake Trail

1930s map of the Mirror Lake Trail and surrounding area

1930s map of the Mirror Lake Trail and surrounding area

When the original Mirror Lake Trail was built, the trailhead was located just a few yards beyond an impressive roadside viewpoint of Yocum Falls on Camp Creek (below). Today, the forest has recovered so completely in this part of the Sherar Burn that this viewpoint is completely overgrown. It is still possible to visit Yocum Falls from the old highway grade, though, by following rough use trails.

Yocum Falls as it once appeared from the original Mount Hood Loop Highway

Yocum Falls as it once appeared from the original Mount Hood Loop Highway

The lower section of the original trail seems to have followed the rambling extent of Yocum Falls quite closely before the trail was destroyed by the modern highway. While the current trailhead gives a brief glimpse of the top of the falls, the old route seems to have provided a nice view of the falls since lost (more on this topic in the third part in this series).

Today, the modern Mirror Lake trailhead continues to provide a popular drop-in hike for families and casual hikers, but the convenience comes at a price. The shoulder parking area is large enough to allow up to 100 cars, and on busy weekends, still more hikers park along the highway all the way to Government Camp, walking the highway shoulder to reach the trailhead.

The Mirror Lake Trail was never designed to handle this much traffic, nor is the small lake able to handle so many visitors. These concerns are part of the Forest Service thinking in why a new trailhead should be constructed.

Camp Creek suffers from its close, unprotected proximity to Highway 26 and the Mirror Lake Trail parking.

Camp Creek suffers from its close, unprotected proximity to Highway 26 and the Mirror Lake Trail parking.

Meanwhile, the 1950s-era trailhead pullout in use today was built at a time when little thought was given to environmental impacts. As a result, highway fill was pushed to the edge of Camp Creek, exposing an important salmon and steelhead stream to heavy loads of silt and pollution from parked vehicles. A visit to Yocum Falls, just downstream, reveals a troubling amount of road debris and the sharp odor of pollution in an otherwise healthy stream corridor.

While these growing impacts on Mirror Lake and Camp Creek aren’t the reason ODOT gives for closing the current Mirror Lake Trailhead, they are compelling arguments to consider.
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The next part of this 3-part series will take a closer look at ODOT’s arguments for closing the existing trailhead and the Forest Service proposal for a new trailhead located east of the existing access.

Cool news in the summer heat!

Hood River Confluence at Punchbowl Park (photo by Peter Marbach)

Hood River Confluence at Punchbowl Park (photo by Peter Marbach)

In my last post, I alluded to some pending good news on the WyEast beat, and in this article I’ll share a trio of pleasantly cool developments for our otherwise scorching summer:

Punchbowl Park Project

Starting off with the big news, the folks behind the Punchbowl Park project learned in late June that they had been awarded a State of Oregon grant of $470,000. These funds will make it possible for Hood River County to acquire the 103-acre Punchbowl Park site in partnership with the Western Rivers Conservancy.

Kayakers at the Hood River Confluence at Punchbowl Park (photo by Peter Marbach)

Kayakers at the Hood River Confluence at Punchbowl Park (photo by Peter Marbach)

This is a huge step forward for this citizen-led movement, a major grass-roots effort guided by Heather Staten of the Hood River Valley Residents Committee (HRVRC). Now that the future of the site is secure, Heather and her organization will be working with the county to begin building a recreational trail network through the new park for the public to enjoy.

Map of proposed trail network at Punchbowl Park

Map of proposed trail network at Punchbowl Park

[click here for a larger map]

Much more work lies ahead for Punchbowl Park, and I’ll continue to post updates here on new developments and opportunities to get involved in the trail building over the coming years. Kudos to Heather and those who pitched in for the tireless work that made this happen. Bringing this area into public ownership is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and one that will pay off for many generations to come!

You can already explore Punchbowl Park in its undeveloped state now by following the maze of user trails that already exist there. You will likely notice signs of recent logging — part of an operation to remove diseased trees from the forest in hopes of limiting their spread. The long-term plan for the new park is to let nature take over, and allow the forest to recover to a more natural state after a century of timber harvesting.

Restore Warren Falls

Warren Creek canyon (and falls) from across the Columbia

Warren Creek canyon (and falls) from across the Columbia

For a second bit of cool news, we move west to Warren Falls. In mid-July, I sent a “Hail Mary” plea to local legislators in the Hood River area asking for their (divine?) intervention to somehow prod the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) into decommissioning the Warren Creek diversion tunnel and restoring Warren Falls. I’ve posted several articles on this proposal (as well as this Oregon Field Guide story) in hopes of doing this needed restoration work when the state will have heavy equipment in the area as part of the next phase of the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail, which will soon cross Warren Creek.

My plea for help was answered promptly and with enthusiasm by State Senator Chuck Thomsen of Hood River. Senator Thomsen agreed to me at the Starvation Creek Wayside early one morning last week for an inspection of the Warren Falls site and a briefing on my proposal to restore the falls. After our tour, he offered to write a letter to both ODOT and the Governor’s office asking them to put Warren Falls on their to-do list. Boom!

The author with Senator Chuck Thomsen at Warren Creek

The author with Senator Chuck Thomsen at Warren Creek

More to come, but simply contacting a legislator has already triggered a call from an ODOT surrogate, essentially asking me to cease and desist in my efforts. I assured them that I had no desire to delay the larger state trail project, but still believe the agency should (and can) do right by undoing their illegal diversion of Warren Creek — and restoring Warren Falls in the process.

I’m convinced that if ODOT channeled the spirit of Samuel Lancaster when he designed the historic highway a century ago, they would easily discover both the will and funding needed to make this happen. And if they do, Sam Lancaster will surely approve — wherever he might be!

If you’re interested in more detail, here’s a (large) PDF of my Hail Mary! letter to Senator Thomsen.

Palmer Glacier gets a Reprieve

Like tractors on a corn field, snowcats plow (and salt) the Palmer Glacier for summer skiers

Like tractors on a corn field, snowcats plow (and salt) the Palmer Glacier for summer skiers

Five years ago, I posted this article challenging the Timberline Ski Resort on their practice of “conditioning” the Palmer Glacier with the equivalent of 500 tons (picture 500 pickup loads) of salt on the glacier each summer.

To defend the practice, the resort points to water quality testing downstream showing only “reasonably elevated levels” of salt in the tributaries that feed into the Salmon River, as if there is something reasonable about purposely pouring salt into one of our premier rivers. The Salmon River is not only treasured for its epic waterfalls and rugged gorge, it’s also a wild and scenic river and among the few salmon and steelhead streams in the Oregon Cascades with no downstream dams to block fish migration. There’s a lot at stake, here.

The source of the Salmon River at the terminus of the Palmer Glacier

The source of the Salmon River at the terminus of the Palmer Glacier

The Forest Service, meanwhile, is also of the “well, let’s see what happens” mindset, and officially permits the Timberline resort to keep dumping tons of salt on Mount Hood most fragile glacier. And yes, it’s still a glacier in name, though you may have noticed that the official media term coming from both the Timberline Resort and the Forest Service is the dismissive “Palmer Snowfield”. I can only guess the thinking behind this, but it’s hard to imagine it not being an attempt to downplay the impacts of salting the glacier.

Yup, still the Palmer Glacier…

Yup, still the Palmer Glacier…

Meanwhile, the Palmer Glacier continues to shrink, along with the rest of our Cascade glaciers in this period of global climate change. The Timberline Resort actually posted a letter to President Obama on their website proclaiming their “strong support for policies to address climate change”, all the while purposely accelerating the melting of their bread-and-butter glacier. Given the contradiction, it’s fairly easy to differentiate the empty rhetoric from the short-term profit motives.

How salty is this runoff from the Palmer Glacier? Enough for the Timberline Resort to be on the defensive, apparently.

How salty is this runoff from the Palmer Glacier? Enough for the Timberline Resort to be on the defensive, apparently.

Ski areas don’t just bring invisible pollution to the Salmon River -- here, a broken boundary pole and ski trash litter the Salmon River headwaters.

Ski areas don’t just bring invisible pollution to the Salmon River — here, a broken boundary pole and ski trash litter the Salmon River headwaters.

The greatest tragedy is that we own the land and the glacier, not the resort. They’re simply leasing the space. So, after the glacier is gone, we’ll own the polluted alpine slopes left behind by the salting practice — as the effects of salt pollution are long-term in nature, and of little concern for ski resort balance sheets or Forest Service concession permits.

So, where’s the cool news in this story? Just that the Timberline resort is closing down the Palmer ski season this weekend — a full month before their advertised “June through Labor Day” summer season concludes.

The Palmer Glacier won't miss those snowcats, skiers or tons of salt this August!

The Palmer Glacier won’t miss those snowcats, skiers or tons of salt this August!

This bit of good news for the Palmer Glacier and Salmon River is real: it translates into hundreds of tons of salt that won’t be spread on the glacier over the month of August this year, and that in turn equals less salt in the river and fragile alpine slopes in a dangerously low water year. It might even mean less melting of the glacier than might happen otherwise.

So, it’s cool news of a sort… and might just help keep the Palmer Glacier around just a bit longer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Checking in on Warren Falls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gorge Friends hike at Warren Creek in April

Gorge Friends hike at Warren Creek in April

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

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

WarrenFallsUpdate07

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

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

As always, every answer brings a few new questions!

Friends of Warren Falls… are everywhere!

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

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

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

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

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

…and the bombshell…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End Game?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. 26 Construction Begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Can’t Get There from Here

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

This is Going to Take Awhile

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

Here’s a rundown of the details from ODOT:

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

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

Finding a New Vision for US 26

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. 26 Website

I-84 Strategy(PDF)

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

Highway 26 Widening – Part One

Highway 26 Widening – Part Two

Highway 26: Last Chance to Weigh in!

Highway 26 Postscript… and Requium?

Ski Traffic & the Loop Highway: Part 1

Ski Traffic & the Loop Highway: Part 2

Ski Traffic & the Loop Highway: Part 2

The winter weekend crush of skiers is nothing new on Mount Hood

The winter weekend crush of skiers is nothing new on Mount Hood

(This is the second in a two-part article. The first part focused on the latest plans to add more parking to the Meadows resort, another step in the wrong direction for Mount Hood, but one that (unfortunately) has already been approved by the U.S. Forest Service. This part focuses on the future, and a promising new strategy that seems to finally be turning the page on an era when ODOT and the Mount Hood ski resorts simply paved their way out of weekend traffic problems with more parking and wider highways.)
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Since the early days of developed snow sports on Mount Hood in the 1920s, winter weekend traffic jams have been the norm. The cars have changed (and so has the highway, regrettably), but the same bottlenecks appear in pretty much the same spots, as thousands of Portlanders pour into the ski resorts over a few short winter weekends each year.

Intrepid auto tours reached Government Camp on dirt roads years before the loop highway was completed in the early 1920s

Intrepid auto tours reached Government Camp on dirt roads years before the loop highway was completed in the early 1920s

From the beginning, there have been overflow parking lots, ski buses, shuttles — even an aerial tram in the early 1950s known as the Skiway — all in an attempt to stem the weekend ski traffic.

In 2013, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, the Federal Highway Administration and Clackamas and Hood River county officials, kicked off yet another effort to address the winter traffic overload.

In the 1920s, Government Camp was the center of winter activity -- and overflowing with cars

In the 1920s, Government Camp was the center of winter activity — and overflowing with cars

While this is just the latest of several ODOT-led efforts over the years to better manage the Loop Highway, the draft Mount Hood Multimodal Transportation Plan (MHMTP) is the best effort yet. While still only a document full of recommendations, the new plan offers real promise that federal, state and local officials are now more serious about managing the relatively short season of ski traffic gridlock.

Timberline Lodge was overflowing with cars as soon as it opened in the late 1930s

Timberline Lodge was overflowing with cars as soon as it opened in the late 1930s

Instead of attempting to rebuild the entire highway corridor to meet the peak demands of ski resort traffic that occurs over a few weekends each year, the MHMTP focuses instead on low-cost, high-impact tools. This is a radical and positive change in mindset — even if the plan itself still has a few gaps.

The stakes are high when it comes to managing traffic on Mount Hood. The ski resorts have little incentive to do anything except ask the general public to cough up more tax dollars for ever-wider highways. After all, it’s a sweet deal for the resorts and skiers, alike: in Oregon, just one in 25 residents ski, so the subsidy for highway projects catering to ski traffic is enormous.

ODOT is currently seeking bids in the latest round of road widening, this time along the slopes of Laurel Hill in what will eventually total more than $60 million in state gas tax funding over the past decade to widen the Loop Highway from Brightwood to Government Camp.

Camp Creek takes the brunt of trash and pollution from US 26. This scene is the unimproved roadside trailhead at Mirror Lake, where a chemical toilet (and associated trash) sits precariously above a steep bank dropping directly into the stream

Camp Creek takes the brunt of trash and pollution from US 26. This scene is the unimproved roadside trailhead at Mirror Lake, where a chemical toilet (and associated trash) sits precariously above a steep bank dropping directly into the stream

Just a few hundred yards downstream from the scene in the previous photo, Camp Creek spills over beautiful Yocum Falls, a seldom-visited spot bypassed by the modern highway. The pool below the falls is sullied with plastic cups, sport drink bottles and tires that have found their way into the stream from the highway

Just a few hundred yards downstream from the scene in the previous photo, Camp Creek spills over beautiful Yocum Falls, a seldom-visited spot bypassed by the modern highway. The pool below the falls is sullied with plastic cups, sport drink bottles and tires that have found their way into the stream from the highway

The traditional “building your way out” mindset has been bad for business in the local communities along the highway. The wider, noisier road has made it even less attractive for day tourists to risk a stop at the remaining shops and restaurants in the corridor. Worse, the huge 5-lane cross sections built on Highway 26 over the last decade have effectively cut the mountain villages in half by creating a scary barrier for local traffic to navigate, whether on foot, bicycle or in a vehicle.

Widening the Loop Highway is even worse for the natural environment, as highway trash, polluted runoff and blown gravel enters directly into the Salmon River, Still Creek, Camp Creek (pictured above) and the Zigzag River. All four streams serve as important salmon and steelhead habitat, a fact lost on the rush to make room for a few weekends of ski traffic each year.

A New Direction?

The Mount Hood Skiway was an early 1950s experiment to lessen parking pressure on Timberline Lodge - it failed, but may have been ahead of its time!

The Mount Hood Skiway was an early 1950s experiment to lessen parking pressure on Timberline Lodge – it failed, but may have been ahead of its time!

ODOT’s new MHMTP is both comprehensive and innovative. The plan is guided by the following objectives for how future travel should occur on the mountain:

• Improved highway safety for all users
• Expanded travel options year-round
• Reduced peak travel demand
• Enhanced mobility and access to recreation and local communities
• New projects should be financially feasible and sustainable
• New projects should be achievable in the next 15 years

The new focus on cost-effectiveness and a broader definition of desired outcomes beyond simply chasing traffic is new for ODOT — and for Mount Hood. It follows the lead of urban areas across the country, where cities are increasingly moving away from big-ticket road projects that seldom provide the advertised safety or mobility benefits used to justify them, and toward more practical solutions that have fewer unintended consequences.

A decade of futile "widening for safety" projects in the Highway 26 corridor has mostly resulted in dividing local communities and increasing highway runoff, with little traffic benefit

A decade of futile “widening for safety” projects in the Highway 26 corridor has mostly resulted in dividing local communities and increasing highway runoff, with little traffic benefit

To achieve these core objectives in managing the Mount Hood travel corridor, the MHMTP lays out four areas of proposed action – this is the real substance of the plan:

1. Better managing the system: in this area, the plan calls for another plan known as a “concept of operations”, which is transportation jargon for an operations blueprint for the Mount Hood loop from the City of Sandy to Hood River. Elements of an operations blueprint could range from web-based traveler information to new or upgraded electronic message signs along the highway, with real-time updates on traffic, parking, transit and emergencies.

The goal of this element of the MHMTP is to make the best use of the system through better-informed travelers and to better coordinate the various public agencies (ODOT, the Forest Service and the two counties) involved in operating the road system.

How it could be better: the details of the “concept for operations” aren’t nailed down at this point (thus the need for another plan), but one strategy not mentioned in the list of possibilities is variable speed limits along the entire loop. This key recommendation from ODOT’s 2010 Highway 26 Safety Audit deserves to be a priority above other, more costly highway projects already moving forward in the area. DOTs around the country are using this technology with excellent results in improving safety and traffic efficiency, and ODOT should join the movement.

An even larger gap in the strategy is an unwillingness by ODOT and the Forest Service to require the ski resorts to adopt peak pricing as a means to help spread out demand. The resorts are loathe to do this, given their troubled future (as described in Part 1 of this article), but if all three major resorts adopt the same policy, they will at least retain their current competitive positions with one another, while Mount Hood’s communities and environment would benefit from a coordinated effort to spread out the highway demand.

Not in the plan: pricing incentives for parking and lift tickets at the big three resorts to spread demand from weekend peaks

Not in the plan: pricing incentives for parking and lift tickets at the big three resorts to spread demand from weekend peaks

Sadly, it will be a very long time before the Forest Service asks the resort to adopt more aggressive peak pricing for lift tickets, but that is the best long-term solution available for spreading out ski demand. Short of that, ODOT holds the cards for managing parking, as all parking along the mountain portion of the Mount Hood Loop Highway falls within a state-designated SnoPark permit area.

Currently, ODOT charges a generic fee for annual and day passes to park at the SnoPark lots (including all three ski resorts), but the agency should consider using these permits to better manage demand on the highway. This is a very low-cost strategy to avoid some very high-cost road widening projects.

2. Bicycle and pedestrian projects: this much-needed element of the plan calls for improved bike and pedestrian crossings at key locations along the loop highway. Highway widening is also called for to allow for more shoulder space for bicycles, along with bike safety improvements at key intersections and traveler information for bicycles. While not driven by ski resorts, this element of the plan embraces the potential for Mount Hood to become a more balanced, year-round recreation destination, and the Loop Highway becoming less of a barrier to hikers and cyclists.

Notably, the famously crowded Mirror Lake trailhead is called out for relocation to address safety issues with the current trailhead. The new trailhead could be sited across the highway, accessed from an existing section of the Historic Mount Hood Loop Highway (that now serves the Glacier View SnoPark), and connected to the current trailhead with a new pedestrian bridge over US 26.

Rumble strips are very effective at keeping distracted drivers out of bike lanes, but bikes also need enough lane space to keep away from the rumble strip

Rumble strips are very effective at keeping distracted drivers out of bike lanes, but bikes also need enough lane space to keep away from the rumble strip

How it could be better: “widening” for bicycle lanes is a default recommendation that you might expect from ODOT, but the lanes along the Mount Hood loop are already very wide in many spots, so keep your fingers crossed that our highway planners are judicious about where to actually widen the road. In most cases, simply providing rumble strips along the shoulder stripe would go a long way to keep cycles safe from motor vehicle traffic, and require fewer subalpine trees to be cut for road widening.

A major gap in this element of the MHMTP is lack of policy direction on speeding or travel speeds — two of the three main contributors to serious accidents identified in the 2010 ODOT safety study (with winter conditions as the third).

Extending and enforcing the existing ODOT safety corridor and 45 mph speed limit from Rhododendron to the Hood River Meadows entrance to Mount Hood Meadows would make cycling along this most mountainous portion of the loop highway much safer – which in turn, makes cycling more attractive, especially on the lower sections of the loop that are generally snow free year-round.

"Widening for bicycle lanes" sounds easy, but the devil is in the details when the road travels through public forest lands

“Widening for bicycle lanes” sounds easy, but the devil is in the details when the road travels through public forest lands

3. Improved transit service: The MHMTP plan calls for new transit from Sandy to the mountain, and Clackamas County recently received a US Department of Transportation grant to expand its Mount Hood Express bus service from Sandy to Ski Bowl, Government Camp and Timberline Lodge. Rides are $2 each direction, with ten buses daily during the ski season, seven in the off-season. The trip from Sandy to Government Camp takes about 55 minutes and Timberline Lodge at about 75 minutes, so quite competitive with driving times and much less expensive.

It’s a good start, and long overdue. The fact that almost all traffic heading to the mountain during the winter season is destined for Government Camp, Timberline or Meadows makes the Mount Hood area highly serviceable with transit, provided a long-term funding mechanism can be found.

For too long, a very limited supply of shuttles and private ski buses at the Mount Hood resorts have been the sole transit option along the loop highway

For too long, a very limited supply of shuttles and private ski buses at the Mount Hood resorts have been the sole transit option along the loop highway

How it could be better: The proposed transit service in the MHMTP is great if you’re coming from Sandy — or able to drive and park your car there — but it doesn’t allow for truly car-free trips to the mountain in a region that is increasingly interested in having this option.

For years, people have wondered aloud about “extending MAX to the mountain”, but that will never happen — the cost would be astronomical and the ridership on the best of days wouldn’t come close to justifying the cost. But bus transit is completely within reach, and well-suited to the demand.

A proposal called “The Boot Loop” on this blog showed how it could be done — save for public and private interests along the loop highway coming together to make it happen. Let’s hope the Mountain Express pilot project is just the beginning of a more comprehensive transit system on Mount Hood and in the Gorge.

4. Safety projects: several critiques of ODOT’s ill-conceived “widening for safety” campaign along the Mount Hood loop have appeared in this blog over the past few years, and thankfully, some of the worst elements of the most recent phase between Rhododendron and Government Camp have been dropped.

Most recently, ODOT failed to receive construction bids within its project budget for this latest phase, and that is potentially good news if it means that some of the remaining bloated, environmentally destructive elements of the project (like cutting back cliffs on Laurel Hill) are scaled back.

Given this context, the safety projects contained in the MHMTP plan are refreshingly sensible and practice — truly “safety” projects, and not just an old-school highway widening agenda wrapped in an attractuve safety package.

ODOT owes the rural communities (like Rhododendron, above) along the loop highway retrofits to undo the damage from the "widening for safety"

ODOT owes the rural communities (like Rhododendron, above) along the loop highway retrofits to undo the damage from the “widening for safety”

How it could be better: travel speed is the single most important lever for highway engineers to reach for if improved safety is truly the desired outcome. ODOT was bold and forward-thinking when it adopted a safety corridor along a portion of Highway 26 several years ago, and especially when the agency adopted a 45 mph speed limit from Wildwood to Rhododendron.

There’s no reason why this successful strategy can’t be extended for the remainder of the ski commute along the Loop Highway, to the lower entrance at Mount Hood Meadows. As the 2010 ODOT safety audit clearly showed, nearly ALL of the serious accidents in this corridor were directly tied to heavy winter travel, and especially weekends, when the predictable crush of day skiers descends upon the mountain.

What’s Next?

ODOT will be wrapping up the MHMTP shortly. You can track the final recommendations on their project website:

Mount Hood Multimodal Transportation Plan website

As the MHMTP moves forward toward funding, the focus will shift to Clackamas and Hood River counties, the Forest Service, ODOT and the ski resorts working collaboratively to bring the various strategies completion. The plan sets forth three tiers of project, but all recommendations fall within a (relatively) short window of 15 years.

The Mirror Lake trailhead could see big changes under the proposed MHMTP plan

The Mirror Lake trailhead could see big changes under the proposed MHMTP plan

ODOT has an institutional habit of saying it “owns” the highways, but in fact, the public owns it – that’s us! Thus, it falls upon the true owners of the Loop Highway to track the details — the specific projects that will carry out the new direction called for in the MHMTP. Perhaps more importantly, it falls upon us to speak out against more funding of old-school road widening projects cloaked as “safety improvements” that could effectively cancel out the MHMTP proposals.

Over the next few years, the recommendations in the MHMTP will gradually be funded through ODOT’s statewide transportation improvement program and similar capital funding programs at the local level. Watch this blog for more details on how the dollars actually roll out in coming years on our beloved loop highway!

Stone Walls of the Columbia River Highway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Basic Designs

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

The standard arched railing found throughout the Gorge

The standard arched railing found throughout the Gorge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New capped arch walls at Wahkeena Falls in 1917

New capped arch walls at Wahkeena Falls in 1917

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Built by Artisans

GorgeStoneWalls16

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

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

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

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

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

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

GorgeStoneWalls18

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

GorgeStoneWalls19

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

GorgeStoneWalls20

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

GorgeStoneWalls21

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

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

GorgeStoneWalls22

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

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

GorgeStoneWalls23

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

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

More to come..!

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

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

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

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

Stonemasons on the recently completed Eagle Creek Bridge in 1915

Stonemasons on the recently completed Eagle Creek Bridge in 1915

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

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

Restoring the Sahalie Falls Bridge

East Fork Bridge at Sahalie Falls as it appears from the modern Loop Highway

East Fork Bridge at Sahalie Falls as it appears from the modern Loop Highway

After years of delay and public agency wrangling, the long-awaited restoration of the East Fork Bridge at Sahalie Falls (henceforth simply called the “Sahalie Falls Bridge” in this article) began this summer. The project is advancing under a division of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) responsible for roads on public lands, and is scheduled for completion this year.

The Sahalie Falls Bridge was constructed as part of the final leg of the Mount Hood Loop Highway in the late 1920s. The bridge was completed in 1928, and is the most dramatic nod to the Samuel Lancaster’s Columbia River Highway on the Mount Hood portion of the loop highway.

Construction of the East Fork Bridge in 1928 (USFS)

Construction of the East Fork Bridge in 1928 (USFS)

The structure was designed by federal lands bridge engineer H.R. Angwin as a graceful arch, spanning the East Fork directly in front of Sahalie Falls, with decorative railings and sidewalks built to allow travelers to stop and take in the inspiring views.

Complementing the idyllic setting is a cobblestone-faced drinking fountain, installed at the east end of the bridge. The fountain once provided a continuous supply of ice-cold mountain water to visitors, and was one of three original stone fountains placed along the Mount Hood portion of the old loop highway.

Sparkling new Sahalie Falls bridge and fountain in the early 1930s

Sparkling new Sahalie Falls bridge and fountain in the early 1930s

The bridge carried loop highway traffic well into the 1950s, until the modern-day Highway 35 was built, bypassing this section of the old road. The new “straightened” highway not only deprived travelers of seeing Sahalie Falls, it also skipped the mountain views across beautiful Hood River Meadows, just east of the falls on the old road.

Today, this bypassed section of the old highway remains open to the public (when snow-free) and will be drivable again once the bridge restoration is complete.

Who was H.R. Angwin?

One of the mysteries of the old bridge at Sahalie Falls is the life of the designer and builder, Henry Raymond (H.R.) Angwin. Public records show him to be the Senior Bridge Engineer in the San Francisco office for the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads from the 1930s through the 1950s. Over the span of his career, Angwin designed dozens of bridges in the western states.

Oakland Tribune Sunday, September 30, 1917

BETROTHALS HOME WEDDING

In a picturesque setting of pink, Miss Neville Stevenson became the bride last night of Henry Raymond Angwin. Eighty relatives [witnessed the] ceremony read by Dr. John Stevenson and William Angwin.

The bride wore a smart frock of white and silver with a conventional tulle veil and orange blossoms, and carried a shower bouquet of lilies of the valley. Her attendant, Miss [Mabel] Gustaffson, blonde as the bride is dark, was in pretty contrast to pink satin and tulle. The bride’s gown was taupe broadcloth with a chic taupe hat white fox furs accenting the tulle.

Mr. and Mrs. Angwin [will] leave for an extended trip through the east, visiting the interesting cities en route. The bride is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. A. V. Stevenson, whose home on Newton Street was the scene of the pretty service. Returning to Oakland, the young people will take an apartment in the Piedmont.

H.R. Angwin was born in 1889, graduated from Oakland High School in California in January 1907, and married Neville Stevenson ten years later, in 1917. They had been married 52 years when H.R. Angwin died in 1969. Neville Angwin died twelve years later, in 1981.

The Angwins had at least two children, Joy and Robert. Joy died as an infant, and is buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland with her parents.

Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, resting place of the Angwins (Wikimedia)

Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, resting place of the Angwins (Wikimedia)

Cemetery marker for Henry, Neville and Joy Angwin (BillionGraves.com)

Cemetery marker for Henry, Neville and Joy Angwin (BillionGraves.com)

H.R. Angwin designed and built a number of familiar Oregon bridges during his tenure as a federal bridge engineer. The East Fork Bridge at Sahalie Falls was one of his first, completed in 1928. Two years later, Angwin designed and built the larger, and equally graceful Salmon River Bridge in Lincoln County. This hard-working gem also survives today, carrying heavy traffic on Highway 18 to the Oregon Coast.

H.R. Angwin's Salmon River Bridge in Lincoln County

H.R. Angwin’s Salmon River Bridge in Lincoln County

Several other Angwin bridges are scattered across Oregon, but most notable in the Mount Hood area are the steel truss bridges built along the Clackamas River Highway in the 1950s: Carter Bridge, Armstrong Bridge, Whitewater Bridge and Cripple Creek bridge all continue to carry traffic today.

(Author’s note: sadly, not much has been written about H.R. Angwin’s long career as a federal bridge builder, so this part of the article is included in hopes of improving awareness of his contributions, and perhaps inspiring further accounts of life)

The 2013 Restoration Project

Frost damage to the railings on the Sahalie Falls Bridge in 2009

Frost damage to the railings on the Sahalie Falls Bridge in 2009

The Sahalie Falls Bridge had begun to show signs of serious deterioration by the late 1990s, and by the mid-2000s, whole chunks of the north railing were breaking loose — sadly, helped along by vandals pulling at the exposed rebar.

Railing Damage on the East Fork Bridge in 2009

Railing Damage on the East Fork Bridge in 2009

By 2008, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) had blocked vehicle access to the bridge, and a project was proposed in the state highway budget to restore the bridge. The original ODOT restoration project later evolved to become a FHWA project by 2011.

The restoration focuses on three areas of needed repair: (1) rebuilding the approach abutments on both ends of the bridge, (2) replacing the heavily damaged north railing cap and (3) restoring the footing on the historic fountain at the east end of the bridge (there may be other repairs planned, but there is little information available for this project, so this list covers the repairs underway as of October of this year).

Construction at the old bridge was finally in full swing in September 2013

Construction at the old bridge was finally in full swing in September 2013

Restoring the bridge abutments involves pouring new reinforced concrete footings at each end of the bridge span and improving surface drainage at the west end to direct storm runoff away from the bridge. The gravel pullouts at both ends of the bridge also appear due for grading and resurfacing as part of the project, as they currently serve as construction staging areas.

The following images show the recent drainage work at the west end, along the approach to the west bridge abutment (as of mid-October), including a recently installed culvert (under the wet fill in the first photo) to address the drainage issues apparent in the earlier 2009 photo (second photo):

Major drainage work is underway as part of reconstructing the west bridge abutment

Major drainage work is underway as part of reconstructing the west bridge abutment

Repeated repairs to the abutment and debris washed onto the roadway is apparent in this 2009 view of the west approach to the bridge

Repeated repairs to the abutment and debris washed onto the roadway is apparent in this 2009 view of the west approach to the bridge

Repairs to the north railing cap extend for the full length of the bridge, with the new cap seated on original concrete railings. As of mid-October, the forms for the new cap had been constructed and were ready to be poured, presumably with concrete, topped by sand mortar. The next series of images show more detail of the railing cap replacement:

Forms in place for pouring a new cap along the north railing

Forms in place for pouring a new cap along the north railing

The forms for the new caps are secured from below with screw clamps

The forms for the new caps are secured from below with screw clamps

Close-up view of the wood forms constructed for the new railing cap

Close-up view of the wood forms constructed for the new railing cap

A peek inside the railing caps (below) shows careful attention to original design details, including quarter-round trim along the outer edges. New reinforcing rods are wired to the original rebar posts embedded in the rails.

When the new caps are poured, masons will use a screed (board) cut with a low arch to repeat the slightly curved top seen in the original cap. The plastic sheeting attached to the forms will be secured over the newly poured caps to slow the curing process to ensure a strong set.

A peek into the railing cap forms shows careful attention to original design details

A peek into the railing cap forms shows careful attention to original design details

In a nearby pile of demolition rubble, chunks of the old railing cap show the quarter round detail that follows the outer edge of the caps

In a nearby pile of demolition rubble, chunks of the old railing cap show the quarter round detail that follows the outer edge of the caps

The south railing is not part of the restoration project, apparently because of its relatively sound condition

The south railing is not part of the restoration project, apparently because of its relatively sound condition

The third element of the Sahalie Falls Bridge project is replacement of a portion of the concrete footing that supports the historic cobble-faced fountain. In the 2009 photo (below) you can see where a section of the fountain base facing the East Fork (behind the fountain) had sunk toward the creek over time, threatening the stability of the fountain.

The sunken east abutment and partially sunken footing on the old fountain can be seen in this 2009 view

The sunken east abutment and partially sunken footing on the old fountain can be seen in this 2009 view

The bowl and rim of the old fountain were restored at some point in the more recent past, and are not part of the current project. The fountain is one of three that survive along the loop highway. The fountain at Buzzard Point still functions, while the fountains at Sahalie Falls and Sherwood Campground (below) are no longer operational and simply serve as rain basins.

The bowl and rim of the fountain were restored at some point in the more recent past

The bowl and rim of the fountain were restored at some point in the more recent past

The three historic Mount Hood Loop fountains, compared

The three historic Mount Hood Loop fountains, compared

[Click here for a larger comparison photo]

This view shows the new concrete footing in place on downslope side of the old fountain

This view shows the new concrete footing in place on downslope side of the old fountain

Crews saved this piece of the old fountain footing -- perhaps to be repurposed as a bench?

Crews saved this piece of the old fountain footing — perhaps to be repurposed as a bench?

Once the restoration project is complete, the Sahalie Falls section of the old loop will re-open to traffic. For the past decade or so, the route has been signed as one-way at the west end, where it connects to the Bennett Pass interchange, so the best way to explore the old highway is follow the signs to Hood River Meadows, then turn left onto the old road before reaching the Meadows resort parking.

Celebrating the Historic Sahalie Falls Bridge

Now that the restoration work is finally underway, the stage is set for some much-needed visitor improvements to the Sahalie Falls area. The view of the falls from the historic bridge is missed by too many travelers, and the odd near-miss with the Umbrella Falls trail (just 100 yards from the bridge, but with no trail connection) has resulted in some messy boot paths formed by hikers attempting to see Sahalie Falls.

This proposal would address both issues, and make it easier to visit the old bridge and falls, whether as a spur from nearby hiking trails, or simply by pulling off Highway 35.

Sahalie Falls trail proposals

Sahalie Falls trail proposals

[Click here for a large map]

The first part of the proposal is a short hiking spur from the bridge to the nearby Umbrella Falls Trail. This would be a very simple trail to build, and could easily be constructed by volunteers. It would not only provide a safe way for hikers to view the falls, but would also allow for the various boot paths along this slope to be decommissioned, and some of the trampled vegetation to be restored.

The pullout on Highway 35 at Sahalie Falls is wide enough to easily allow for roadside parking and a new trailhead

The pullout on Highway 35 at Sahalie Falls is wide enough to easily allow for roadside parking and a new trailhead

The second part of the proposal is an accessible loop trail that would allow the elderly, disabled and families with small children to experience the East Fork in a new way.

The trailhead for the new loop would be at the east end of an existing pullout on Highway 35, where the historic highway bridge can be seen from the modern loop road. The first leg of the new loop trail would follow the East Fork to the base of little-known Lower Sahalie Falls, a charming waterfall hidden in the canyon beneath the historic bridge.

Lower Sahalie Falls

Lower Sahalie Falls

From here, the new accessible loop trail would cross the East Fork in front of the lower falls and gently traverse up the west slope of the canyon to the west bridge approach. Once at the old highway grade, the new path would cross the historic bridge, providing a view back to the trailhead pullout on Highway 35.

View down the East Fork to Highway 35 from the historic Sahalie Falls Bridge

View down the East Fork to Highway 35 from the historic Sahalie Falls Bridge

Visitors to the bridge inevitably cross to admire the views from both sides, so an accessible route would probably warrant a marked crossing at the two bridgeheads, where people using mobility devices could most safely access the sidewalks.

After enjoying the views from the bridge, visitors would continue past the east end to a resumption of the new loop trail, following the east leg back to the trailhead. The total distance of the accessible loop would be about 0.3 miles with a very modest elevation gain of about 60 feet.

View of Sahalie Falls from the historic loop highway bridge

View of Sahalie Falls from the historic loop highway bridge

Accessible trails are often paved, but for this new route, a better option would be fine gravel, mostly because it would provide better traction in an often wet environment. But the proposed loop is also within the deposit zone for winter highway snow removal that sends a lot of grit used to sand icy roads far into the adjacent forest. A gravel trail surface could actually be enhanced by these annual deposits, where a paved surface would require sweeping to remove winter gravel.

What Would it Take?

As with all proposals in this blog, the Sahalie Falls accessible trail concept relies on the U.S. Forest Service — and in this case, Oregon Department of Transportation — acknowledging the need for more recreational and interpretive opportunities in the Gorge and on Mount Hood.

While the proposed spur connection to the Umbrella Falls trail could be built by volunteers, the proposed accessible loop trail would be a major endeavor that could only be accomplished by the Forest Service in conjunction with ODOT.

The original USGS survey marker at the east end of the bridge has been uncovered from years of debris

The original USGS survey marker at the east end of the bridge has been uncovered from years of debris

The added twist in this proposal is the need for an accessible trail, something in very short supply in our region despite a rapidly growing elderly and disabled population. Oregon State Parks and Recreation has made great strides in responding to this need in recent years, but the Forest Service lags behind badly, with few accessible facilities built in the last 30 years.

Fortunately, a new guide for designing accessible trails has recently been developed by the Access Recreation project, an ad-hoc organization formed to develop better design guidelines for public agencies involved in trail-building.

SahalieFallsBridge28

The guidelines are now available on the Access Oregon website, and cover everything from trail surface and slope recommendations to best practices for signage and trailside amenities that address the needs of elderly and disabled trail users. It’s a great resource for trail advocates and public agencies, alike — and could help shape new trail options on Mount Hood!

Highway 26: Last Chance to weigh in!

Mount Hood from the Mirror Lake Trail

Mount Hood from the Mirror Lake Trail

After several years of planning, the proposed safety projects on the Mount Hood Highway (Highway 26) are nearly a done deal, and have entered a final round of public review and comment — with comments due April 7th!

The project has been the subject of several articles on this blog, and thankfully, has been scaled-back somewhat from the original, old school “widen for safety” retread of 1950s highway mentality that dominated earlier phases in the corridor. That said, the project has simply moved from a failed grade to something like a C-minus, at best. It needs your input to be more than an eyesore for the traveling public.

Google Earth perspective on the US26 Laurel Hill Grade

Google Earth perspective on the US26 Laurel Hill Grade

The highway section in question is the Laurel Hill grade, west of Government Camp. Ever since Oregon Trial pioneers lowered their covered wagons down the infamous talus “chute” on Laurel Hill, this spot has vexed road designers.

The current highway alignment is no exception: despite blasting away a good portion of Laurel Hill, the road is still a steep, curving, often treacherous route. The need for safety improvements is on the mark, but it’s unclear if the solutions proposed by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) will deliver, as some of the best (and least expensive) recommendations from their own safety study were dropped from the project at the very start.

It’s not to late to add some of these more practical, potentially more effective solutions to the project, even if the highway engineers seem determined to widen the road and chip away more of Laurel Hill as their preferred solution. More on how you can weigh in at the conclusion of this article.

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

But first, an overview of the ODOT final proposal is in order, starting with kudos to the agency (yes, you read that right!) for greatly improving their public involvement. Having reviewed a lot of ODOT projects over the years, I’m impressed with the effort the agency has made in this final round of outreach for Highway 26.

Though in-person open houses have continued to be limited to the Welches area (despite the fact that the vast majority of highway users — and taxpayers — live in the metro area), the web tools provided by ODOT in this round of public review are especially well done, and arguably a better format for most citizens than traditional open houses.

The Project

The following are “before-and-after” digital renderings of the major elements of the Highway 26 safety project. A link to the ODOT virtual open house is included at the end of this article, and includes these renderings at much larger scale.

The number shown on each pair of images corresponds to the map shown above (or you can click here to open a large version of the map in a new window or tab). The tour starts from the west, at the base of the Laurel Hill grade, and proceeds east toward Government Camp.

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The project begins at the west (lower) end of the Laurel Hill grade. A number of small changes are proposed along this approach, but the most notable is proposal to cut back the cliff at the “Map Curve”, the ODOT name for the wide bend in the highway where Mount Hood first looms into view — a very popular, if somewhat harrowing pullout for visitors.

The rendering above shows what the scaled-back cliff at the Map Curve would look like from the west, as you pass the familiar road cut and rock outcrop known by ODOT as “Silent Rock. As the renderings show, the scaled-back cliff would be a major undertaking. The purpose of this element of the project is to prevent rocks from falling on the highway. According to ODOT, this is safety concern in the area, and the cause of numerous crashes over the years.

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This is another before-and-after rendering of the scaled-back cliff, this time looking west from near the Map Curve toward the base of Laurel Hill. This view shows another proposed feature: a continuous concrete median, extending from just below the Map Curve to just above the Mirror Lake trailhead, for a total of about 2.5 miles.

The ODOT plans for the median call for an “aesthetic” concrete that complements natural material found in the area. The capped concrete median (installed near Bennett Pass) pictured in public outreach materials would, indeed, be a significant improvement over a standard barricade:

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Unfortunately, the design pictured in the ODOT before-and-after renderings, omit the faux cap, greatly diminishing the “aesthetic” qualities of the proposed barriers.

Other highway departments around the country are experimenting with similar “context sensitive” alternatives for concrete medians in natural or scenic environments, such as this example from CalTrans, installed in the San Luis Obispo area:

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The cost of aesthetic medians will be a major driver in the ODOT final decision, but the longevity of the medians (30-40 years?) call for getting it right the first time. ODOT should be installing something special that truly enhances the Mount Hood Highway experience, not just something “less worse” than a standard freeway barricade.

The next rendering (below) is from the Map Curve, this time looking east toward Mount Hood. This view also shows the proposed median as well as the scaled-back cliff.

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It’s hard to argue with the need to reduce hazardous rock fall in the Map Curve area, except to imagine a parallel universe where foresighted engineers had tunneled through Laurel Hill when the modern highway was originally built..!

But alas, the current alignment is our reality, and based on the materials provided by ODOT, the scaled-back cliff is another least-worst solution for the problem. The engineers are proposing a steeper-than-standard cliff face when completed, but with a larger catchment at the base, thus (hopefully) reducing the number of rocks that make it to the roadway while also minimizing the amount of road widening to accommodate the catchment.

The towering road cut at the Highway 26 “Map Curve” will get taller and much longer under the ODOT safety proposal (photo: ODOT)

The towering road cut at the Highway 26 “Map Curve” will get taller and much longer under the ODOT safety proposal (photo: ODOT)

ODOT surveyed the existing cliff with the aid of a helicopter, and the scope of this element of the project is truly daunting: as shown in the image above, the man-made cliff is already very large, and making an even taller cut will be a tricky endeavor, indeed.

This element of the project appears to already be a done deal, so the best we can hope for is that the resulting scars on the landscape aren’t any more jarring than what can already be seen (and heard) from nearby recreation trails. Keep your fingers crossed.

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The next rendering (above) is from a point just beyond the Map Curve, looking back at the curve and the adjacent runaway truck ramp (a feature that dates back to the late 1970s). As with the previous views, the changes here include the scaled-back cliff section and continuous concrete median.

Next up is a before-and-after view toward the mountain from high saddle on Laurel Hill where the highway crosses from the south face to the north side of the ridge. This spot is familiar to travelers as the site of the historic Laurel Hill Chute interpretive sign and trail. The rendering shows the proposed median, road widening to 4-lanes and another substantially scaled-back cliff section to address reported rock fall hazards.

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Notably absent from this rendering is a new pullout and trailhead for the historic Laurel Hill Chute site, hopefully just an oversight by the artists. ODOT has not suggested in the written materials for the project that trail access at this point will be eliminated. This is a detail worth commenting on if visiting this fascinating remnant of the original Oregon Trail is one of your family traditions.

The next before-and-after rendering (below) is from the same section of road, also looking east, but from the bottom of an embankment on the opposite side of the highway, where the Pioneer Bridge Trail parallels the road. Here, a structural retaining wall is proposed to provide the additional roadway width needed to widen the highway to four lanes and add the center median. Kudos to ODOT for a context-sensitive solution with this retaining wall: the rendering suggests it will be constructed with faux-stone facing, thus lessening the visual blight for hikers, cyclists and equestrians using the trail, if not the overwhelming noise from highway traffic.

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The proposed widening to 4 lanes in this section is significantly scaled back from earlier incarnations of the Laurel Hill safety project. This is a welcome change to the design, as ODOT’s own safety data shows only occasional spikes in traffic volumes — on holidays and peak summer and winter weekends — that road widening would do little to resolve. Most of the time, traffic volumes on Highway 26 are far below built capacity, and the few (and arguably avoidable) traffic jams that occur don’t warrant costly widening projects.

The final before-and-after view is from opposite the Mirror Lake trailhead, looking west (downhill) toward Laurel Hill. Here, the rendering shows another proposal to cut back an existing slope to address rock fall and sight distance concerns, the upper extent of the proposed median and another section of highway proposed to be widened to 4 lanes.

The Mirror Lake trailhead is unquestionably dangerous, thanks to very heavy use and its location on a relatively steep curve. The proposed median will should eliminate the possibility of crossover crashes throughout its proposed 2.5 mile extent, but is especially warranted at this location.

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However, the median will also prevent left turns in and out of the Mirror Lake trailhead, forcing hikers approaching from Portland to continue west to Government Camp to make their return trip. With the median terminating just east of the trailhead, visitors will be tempted to make a U-turn, a potential hazard ODOT has not addressed in the proposal.

Likewise, visitors coming to Mirror Lake from Government Camp will have to drive 3.5 miles to the bottom of Laurel Hill, and presumably turn around at the Kiwanis Camp junction in order reach the trailhead.

Civil disobedience ensued in 2010 when ODOT abruptly closed the Mirror Lake trailhead to winter parking

Civil disobedience ensued in 2010 when ODOT abruptly closed the Mirror Lake trailhead to winter parking

These changes at Mirror Lake will be unwelcome news to hikers who have already chafed at the recent winter closure of the trailhead by ODOT. In the end, it’s probably a “least worst” trade-off in the interest of traffic safety, but ODOT could be doing much more to make this element a real step forward for Mirror Lake visitors.

For example, it’s hard to tell from the “after” rendering, but the Mirror Lake trailhead appears unchanged: this is a missed opportunity, as ODOT will spend tens of millions on the overall Laurel Hill safety project, and a more carefully and aesthetically designed parking area here, separated from the highway traffic, could further improve traffic safety.

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ODOT has a lot of recent experience in this area from their excellent trailhead parking improvements in the Columbia River Gorge, including Angels Rest, Horsetail Falls and Yeon State Park. These relatively new designs provide a perfect template for the Mount Hood Highway, and follow the aesthetic lead ODOT has already taken in recent years with context sensitive designs for the Multorpor overcrossing and Government Camp signage, for example.

Getting it right the first time!

The current round of projects coming to the Mount Hood Highway are the most recent in a string stretching back decades, and clearly will not be the last. Though the final designs ODOT is proposing in the interest of “safety” are less destructive than some of the initial concepts, there are still a number of missed opportunities and questionable “solutions” on the table.

1920s motorists enjoying the view from a kinder, gentler Mount Hood Highway in 1931

1920s motorists enjoying the view from a kinder, gentler Mount Hood Highway in 1931

It’s probably too late to turn back some of the more questionable elements, but there’s still time to advocate where opportunities have been missed. Here’s a rundown of some additions that could make this project more successful. Consider adding these to your own comments!

1. Retain the Laurel Hill Chute Trailhead: this important historic site has been a family stopping point for generations, and must not be lost to road widening. ODOT should propose an improved pullout for visitors at the current trailhead.

2. Make the Mirror Lake Trailhead a showpiece: ODOT should follow its own lead with new trailheads built in the Gorge, and make this trailhead more than just a dusty highway pull-off. Mirror Lake is the “gateway” trail for many first-time visitors to the mountain and the pullout and trailhead ought to be designed accordingly.

3. Use architecturally enhanced medians: the proposed exposed aggregate medians are a tiny step in the right direction, but this element of the project will be the most visible to the traveling public. Let’s aim higher with architecturally themed medians that coordinate with recent improvements to the Government Camp streetscape — and at a minimum, the capped design used at Bennett Pass.

4. Look for storm water solutions to protect Camp Creek: the project is silent about the ongoing effects of polluted Highway 26 runoff on adjacent Camp Creek, a salmon and steelhead-bearing stream. ODOT will be putting down an immense amount of asphalt and new road fill with this project, so will they also improve storm water capture in the process?

5. Don’t wait to install variable speed signs & photo radar: this is one of the least expensive solutions in ODOT’s own safety audit, but moved to the back of the line from the very start. Why wait? Install variable speed limit signs and photo radar now for use during hazardous conditions.

6. Extend the Highway 26 Safety Corridor: ODOT bravely reduced the posted speed limit to 45 MPH from Wildwood to Rhododendron in an earlier phase of the Highway 26 safety campaign. Now it’s time to extend this safety corridor to Timberline Road. It’s an inexpensive, extremely effective safety solution whose time as come — plus, reduced speeds greatly reduce noise impacts for those living along the corridor and recreating on nearby public lands, a dual benefit.

7. Develop a long-term strategy for the resorts: the dirty little secret in ODOT’s 15-year campaign to address safety in the Mount Hood corridor is that almost all of the crashes occur in winter, on a few weekends when the roads are icy. It’s not rocket science to deduce that most of this is due to the huge spikes in traffic coming from the three major ski resorts on the mountain. It’s time to manage winter resort traffic comprehensively, and give skiers real alternatives to driving to the mountain in adverse conditions (more on that in a future article…)

In the long term, the most sustainable solution for the highway is to manage it as a scenic parkway, and put an end to the constant, incremental creep toward becoming an unmanageable, unlivable urban freeway sprawling over the shoulder of iconic Mount Hood (…more on that in a future article, as well…)

Go ahead, weigh in… by April 7th!

ODOT has done a very good job assembling a “virtual open house”, so if you care about Mount Hood and want to weigh in on their plans, it really couldn’t be easier. Simply go to their project website and explore:

Highway 26 Virtual Open House

Remember, comments are due by April 7th! While it’s true that many of the project elements are likely a done deal, you can still have an impact by making your concerns known. Projects like this have a sizable “contingency” budget set aside for this very reason, and now is the time to guide how those funds (your tax dollars) are spent!

The original Laurel Hill grade in the 1920s, shortly after the Mount Hood Highway opened

The original Laurel Hill grade in the 1920s, shortly after the Mount Hood Highway opened


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For more background on this proposal, you can also read these previous WyEast Blog articles on the topic:

Highway 26 Widening: Part 1

Highway 26 Widening: Part 2

Highway 26 Widening Postscript… and Requiem?

Tollgate Maples… and the Highway