Latourell Falls Makeover (Part 2)

Latourell Falls

Latourell Falls

In the first part of this article, I focused on recent improvements that have greatly enhanced the Historic Columbia River Highway wayside at Latourell Falls. This article looks at the balance of Guy Talbot State Park, where a number of improvements are needed to keep pace with the ever-growing number of visitors who now hike the Latourell loop trail year-round.

Improving the Loop Trail

Hiking the loop in the traditional clockwise direction from the wayside, the first stop is bench located a few hundred yards up the trail. This memorial bench was donated by the Sierra Club, and though it’s not a great architectural fit for the area (a rustic style would be more appropriate), it’s still a welcome resting spot for casual hikers.

Memorial bench along the Latourell Loop Trail

Memorial bench along the Latourell Loop Trail

Not coincidentally, the bench faces a lovely view of Latourell Falls, but there’s a story behind the view, as someone has made the effort to do some “scene management” for photographers. Take a look at the photo below, and you can appreciate the waterfall scene in its graceful glory, framed by firs and moss-covered maples. But a closer look reveals a sawed-off stump with a fresh cut. Why here? Because a trail steward (authorized or otherwise) trimmed off the broken shards of a maple that split off in an ice storm a few years ago — leaving a sore thumb that marred this classic view. You can see in these after/before comparisons from now and in 2010:

A beautiful scene as viewed in December 2012…

A beautiful scene as viewed in December 2012…

…and the sore thumb that once was…

…and the sore thumb that once was…

…and the telltale stump!

…and the telltale stump!

If this was sanctioned “scene management” pruning, then kudos to the State Parks folks for putting classic views on their maintenance list. If this is a guerilla effort by a frustrated photographer, then perhaps State Parks managers will take note, and keep this view intact..!

Moving up the loop, the trail soon approaches a heavily trampled bluff above Latourell Falls. Here, the first apparent problem is a decades-old shortcut at the first switchback. A sign begs hikers to stay on the trail to protect “sensitive plants”, but so far, the boots are winning, despite logs and debris purposely scattered across the shortcut.

Tossing more logs across this shortcut might help, but borrowing an idea from the beautiful new stonework at the trailhead (or recently built stonework along the Bridal Veil Falls trail), and adding a rustic stone retaining wall here to corral traffic would be a nice option that would have lasting value.

A forlorn sign attempts to reason with trail-cutters

A forlorn sign attempts to reason with trail-cutters

The viewpoint atop the well-worn bluff is really starting to show its age. The 1950s-vintage steel cable fence and mix of concrete and steel pipe posts were never a good aesthetic fit for the Gorge, but more importantly, they’re not doing anything. Visitors have recently pushed a scary boot path past the fence, and down to the brink of Latourell Falls (shown below), so a near-term fix is in order.

The overgrown, beleaguered viewpoint at the to of the falls is in need of some TLC!

The overgrown, beleaguered viewpoint at the to of the falls is in need of some TLC!

The trail at the overlook has already been stomped into a wide “plaza” of sorts, and that would be a good design solution here, with a stone wall replacing the rickety old handrail. A layer of crushed gravel (another design feature of the recent improvements at Bridal Veil Falls) would further help minimize the mud slick that forms in wet months.

The lone (and beleaguered) wood bench at the overlook is well-used, and a redesign should include two or three places to sit and admire the view. For most visitors who venture beyond the lower falls overlook, this bluff above the falls is the turnaround point.

The boot path to the brink of the falls has become a heavily used liability in recent years

The boot path to the brink of the falls has become a heavily used liability in recent years

Adding a stone wall to better define the overlook would help curb foolhardy visitors from following the boot path to the falls brink. However, the overlook also needs some vegetation management in order to simply maintain the view back down to the trailhead — this is what most hikers who push beyond the handrails are looking for, after all.

A pair of reckless visitors in flip-flops spotted in 2010 at the bottom of the dangerous boot path, tempting fate…

A pair of reckless visitors in flip-flops spotted in 2010 at the bottom of the dangerous boot path, tempting fate…

A few steps beyond the bluff overlook, an unmarked trail forks to the right, descending to Latourell Creek. At first, this seems like another informal boot path, but a closer look reveals a well-constructed trail. In fact, this is where a lower loop once crossed the creek, connecting to the main loop where it returns (and is clearly visible) on the far side of the creek. This is an old idea that still makes sense, and should be embraced with a new bridge and refurbished connector trail.

This side trail (to the right) used to be part of a lower loop route

This side trail (to the right) used to be part of a lower loop route

In reality, hikers are already using the lower loop, though a series of slick, dangerous logs a few yards upstream from the brink of Latourell Falls serve as the “bridge”. Reconnecting and restoring these old trail segments would be a good way to provide a shorter loop for less active hikers, and also resolve this hazardous crossing that is clearly too tempting for many hikers to resist.

Bridge needed! This old trail and the sketchy log crossing are an accident waiting to happen -- and also an opportunity to provide an excellent short loop for hikers.

Bridge needed! This old trail and the sketchy log crossing are an accident waiting to happen — and also an opportunity to provide an excellent short loop for hikers.

Moving along the loop to its upper end, the Latourell trail has a few issues at Upper Latourell Falls that deserve attention in the interest of protecting the lush landscape from being loved to death. For many years, this upper section of the trail was only lightly used, but the proximity of Talbot State Park to the Portland Metro region and the family-friendly nature of this trail has clearly made the full loop a very favorite destination.

Upper Latourell Falls

Upper Latourell Falls

The trail approach on the east side of the falls is in good shape, but problems start to emerge on the west side of the footbridge. This is not coincidental, as an adventurous early trail once switch-backed up the slope on the west side, and led to a precarious bridge across the mid-section of the falls (shown below).

The location of this old trail was uncovered only recently. Century-old rockwork and obvious paths heading uphill from the falls have always hinted at an old trail, but a geocache has now been placed along the old path, drawing enough visitors up the slope to add some urgency to addressing the off-trail impacts here.

A century-old trail climbs the west slope at Upper Latourell Falls

A century-old trail climbs the west slope at Upper Latourell Falls

The best solution here is to embrace the lowest segment of the old path by repairing the stonework, or perhaps adding steps where a shortcut has formed, and provide hikers with that close-up view from behind the falls that is responsible for the bulk of the off-trail traffic (the hikers in the photo above are making this irresistible trip).

The upper sections of the old trail are much less traveled, and a simple solution here might be to simply ask the geocache owner to remove the cache. The cache risks not simply re-opening the old trail, but also bringing inexperienced hikers to the potentially dangerous rock shelf where the log footbridge once stood. If the geocache is removed soon, it’s unlikely that visitors would even notice the upper portions of this trail.

This precarious bridge spanned the upper tier of Upper Latourell Falls in the early 1900s (courtesy U of O Archives)

This precarious bridge spanned the upper tier of Upper Latourell Falls in the early 1900s (courtesy U of O Archives)

Turning downstream along the west leg of the Latourell loop, the trail passes a couple of spots where some TLC is needed. First, another potentially dangerous log crossing (shown below) has drawn enough traffic to form its own boot path.

It could be decades before this old log finally collapses into the creek, so a better plan is needed to stem the damage now. Sawing out the log seems possible, and is a job that could be easily in early fall, when water levels are at their lowest, and fire danger has passed. This might even be a job for volunteer trail stewards with crosscut skills.

The other “bridge” on upper Latourell Creek…

The other “bridge” on upper Latourell Creek…

A bit further downstream along the west leg, the loop trail passes the old trail leading to the former footbridge (described previously). Here, the new trail launches uphill along a steep, slick segment built to bypass the bridge.

Reopening the old trail section (and adding a new bridge) would therefore have a spinoff benefit here: not only would a shorter loop be possible (and safe), but the short, badly designed new section of the current trail (shown in yellow on the map, below) could be decommissioned, with the main route using the old section of trail, once again (shown in red). This would be a terrific project for volunteers, including bridge construction.

LatourellLoop16

(click here for a large map)

Another scary feature suddenly appears as the west leg of the loop trail curves above Latourell Falls: an old viewpoint spur trail heads straight down to a very exposed, rocky outcrop rising directly above the falls. The view from this exposed landing is impressive, but completely unsafe, given the thousands of families with young kids that walk this loop each year. There is no railing and no warning of the extreme exposure for parents attempting to keep kids in tow.

The west overlook from the trail… yikes!

The west overlook from the trail… yikes!

The safety hazards of the west overlook are twofold: certain death for someone slipping over the 280 foot sheer cliff to the north and a tempting, sloped scramble to the falls brink for daredevils and the foolhardy.

A simple solution could be a handrail or cable encircling the viewpoint, but a more elegant option would be a more permanent viewing platform in the stonework style of the improvements at the trailhead, serving both as a safety measure and to encourage visitors to comfortably enjoy the airy view.

The west overlook and falls brink from the east side

The west overlook and falls brink from the east side

Next, the loop trail curves away from the creek and out of Latourell canyon, passing an overgrown viewpoint (that probably deserves to be retired), then descending in a long switchback to the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Here, the route crosses the road, and resumes on an attractive path that suddenly ends in the Talbot State Park picnic area. Though a bit of searching gets most hikers to the resumption of the loop hike, some signage would be helpful here — both to direct loop hikers back to the main trailhead, but also pointing picnickers to trail to both the upper and main waterfalls.

Heavy traffic has formed a boot-path at the base of Latourell Falls

Heavy traffic has formed a boot-path at the base of Latourell Falls

Beyond the picnic area, the trail re-enters Latourell canyon and quickly descends to the base of Latourell Falls, the final area where loop trail improvements are sorely needed. At this point along the loop, we are within a few hundred yards of the main trailhead and wayside, so the crush of year-round visitors is evident everywhere — and thus the paved trail surface in this portion of the loop.

Most of the human impact is absorbed by the trail, but in recent years a messy boot path has developed along the west side of the creek, starting at the lower footbridge, and branching as it heads toward the base of the falls.

Looking back at the footbridge, and the extent of damage from the boot path

Looking back at the footbridge, and the extent of damage from the boot path

As it nears the falls, the boot path devolves into a web of muddy paths, where delicate ferns and wildflowers have been trampled

As it nears the falls, the boot path devolves into a web of muddy paths, where delicate ferns and wildflowers have been trampled

There isn’t a good way to convert this boot path into a formal spur or viewpoint because of the unstable slopes and visual impact it would create, so the challenge is how to best manage the off-trail activity. The simplest option would be an extension of the bridge hand-rail to block the boot path, making off-trail exploring a bit harder.

This mud patch at the east approach to the lower footbridge would make a perfect mini-plaza for visitors to spend time taking in the view

This mud patch at the east approach to the lower footbridge would make a perfect mini-plaza for visitors to spend time taking in the view

But there is also an opportunity to embrace the first part of the boot path, where a “mud plaza” of sorts has been stomped into the ground. This spot features one of the best angles for photographing the falls, after all, so a stone masonry mini-plaza with seating would be a terrific way to both discourage the off-trail travel, and give waterfall admirers an inviting place to stop and photograph the falls, out of the main flow of foot traffic.

Honoring Guy W. Talbot

One last bit of unfinished business at Talbot State Park is a debt of gratitude to Guy Talbot, himself. At the west end of the historic highway bridge, a large gravel pullout serves as overflow parking for this popular park. The loop trail crosses the highway near the pullout and in recent years, heavy use has turned this into an overflow trailhead, as well.

The wide pullout at the west end of the Latourell Bridge

The wide pullout at the west end of the Latourell Bridge

At first glance, it seems nothing more than a broad, gravel shoulder. But upon closer inspection, it’s home to the only real monument to Guy Webster Talbot — the man whose profound generosity spared Latourell Falls from some other fate, and gave us the park that we know today. After all, the property wasn’t simply an undeveloped tract of forest, but rather, Talbot’s beloved country home. He gave the place he loved most to all Oregonians, in perpetuity.

Few traces of Talbot’s home and the surrounding estate survive, so this would be the perfect spot for a third interpretive sign (the first two are on the east end of the bridge, at the refurbished wayside) focused on Talbot, and why he was such an important historical figure in history of the area.

This plaque is the sole evidence of Guy Talbot’s grand gesture to the public

This plaque is the sole evidence of Guy Talbot’s grand gesture to the public

The pullout, itself, could also be improved to become a more formal secondary trailhead for the loop, as well — perhaps not as substantial as the newly rebuilt main trailhead and wayside at the other end of the bridge, but something better than the pothole-covered pullout that exists today.

The venerable Latourell Creek Bridge is among the most impressive on the old highway

The venerable Latourell Creek Bridge is among the most impressive on the old highway

Finally, there’s one more interpretive opportunity near the Guy Talbot memorial: a tale of two bridges. One is the towering, 300-foot long Latourell Bridge along the old highway, to the east. The unique history of its construction in 1914 is a story that should be told, especially since visitors can walk both sides of the bridge on the beautifully designed, original sidewalks.

The second bridge is a curious phantom of history — a former footbridge that once connected the two halves of the Talbot property in an elaborate, Venetian-style arch. Though long gone, the footings for the bridge can still be seen, and are a reminder of the elegance of days gone by.

The old footbridge over the highway was located just east of Latourell Creek

The old footbridge over the highway was located just east of Latourell Creek

The good news is that both the Oregon State Parks and Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) are on a roll when it comes to enhancing the Historic Columbia River Highway trails and waysides. Many recent improvements to the Gorge parks and the old highway, itself, have already been completed in recent years, and more are already under construction.

Hopefully, polishing up the rest of the Latourell Falls loop and Talbot State Park can find its way into the State Parks and ODOT work program, too!

___________________________

Addendum: after posting this article, I heard from the owner of the geocache mentioned above Upper Latourell Falls. File this under the “small world” department, but it also happened to be someone I’ve known for many years, and who sets the highest standard for conservation ethics. Had I checked the cache ownership and known this, it would have erased any concerns about potential impacts the cache will have on the area. I now know it is in very good hands!

The cache owner also shared some numbers behind the cache that support that last point: only 50 users have logged it in the 3-plus years since it was placed, so not enough to have a noticeable impact on the terrain. Thus, the impacts that we’ve seen in recent years are likely just more of what we see elsewhere on the loop, where the crush of thousands off feet hitting this trail each year is running the landscape a bit ragged.

At its core, geocaching is a terrific way to introduce people (and especially children) to our public lands, which in turn, helps create advocates for conservation — something very much in line with this blog. Hopefully this article didn’t leave other geocachers thinking otherwise. After all, I own several caches myself, and like most cache owners, do my best to ensure they bring people into the wilds while also having minimal impact on the landscape.

The Boot Loop: Bringing Transit to Mount Hood

There is a surprisingly long, sometimes strange history in the effort to bring public transportation to Mount Hood. Private ski buses have carried winter visitors to the mountain almost since the beginning of the south side resorts. Before that, visitors to Cloud Cap journeyed by train, then stage, to reach the mountain at the turn of the 20th Century.

Perhaps the strangest episode was the brief reign of the Skiway to Timberline, an ungainly gondola scheme consisting of a customized bus suspended on a cable lift. The Skiway carried skiers from Government Camp to Timberline Lodge in just 10 minutes, with two modified coaches called “Cloudliners” custom-designed for the circuit.

Was the Skiway to Timberline ahead of its time?

The system cost a hefty $2 million when it was completed in 1951, but only operated until 1956 due to chronic mechanical problems and disappointing interest from skiers. Though it seems absurd now, the operators actually filed for permits to extend the Skiway to the summit of Mount Hood, then down the north face to Cloud Cap before the entire enterprise stalled.

Today, a ski trail carrying the name is the only reminder of the Skiway. The base terminal survives, but is nearly unrecognizable, having been converted into condominiums.The following newsreel captures the spirit if the Skiway in its early, more optimistic days:

In 1986 the first of Portland’s light rail lines opened, reaching out to the suburb of Gresham, 15 miles east of downtown. The system was an immediate hit with Portlanders, and soon there were enthusiastic calls for extending the tracks to Mount Hood. It was never to be, of course, simply because of the sheer cost of building a line on that scale (Government Camp lies 40 miles and nearly 4,000 vertical feet above Gresham) that would never draw enough passengers to justify the expense. Yet, it was conventional wisdom that some sort of public transportation to Mount Hood was needed.

Could transit to Mount Hood work?

During the recent economic downturn, the lack of a transit option has been still more glaring, with gas prices topping $4 per gallon, and an increasing number of Portlanders simply opting out of owning an automobile. For many skiers, hikers and mountain bikers, this once again raises the question: why isn’t there public transit to Mount Hood and the Columbia Gorge?

The simple answer is that none of the public agencies with jurisdiction for the area is even considering the option. The Forest Service has placed a few conditions on ski resorts to provide limited transit, but otherwise is silent on public transportation.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has the authority to step up, and even commissioned a 1999 feasibility study for the US 26 corridor. But instead of exploring the recommended transit options, ODOT has since focused its efforts on widening the highway in response to ski-weekend traffic bottlenecks, to the tune of nearly $50 million over the past 12 years. To date, only the National Park Service has embraced recreation transit, with bus and shuttle systems serving several national parks.

The National Park Service already provides transit service in several parks (NPS)

This leaves ridesharing as the only viable alternative to driving alone to the trailheads for skiers, hikers and cyclists. While many hikers take advantage of sponsored hikes and informal meet-ups to take advantage of this option, there is no organized rideshare system available to the public.

What would it take to provide meaningful transit to Mount Hood and the Gorge? This article attempts to answer the logistics of that question, and explores whether a system could actually designed with hikers and cyclists in mind. In this way, the proposal differs from past schemes in that it focuses on hikers and mountain bikers, not ski resorts.

Proposal: The Boot Loop!

Over the years, many people have asked me about transit to Mount Hood and the Gorge, perhaps because they know I’m a transportation planner by day. And while my professional background made this proposal easier to assemble, it goes without saying that this is simply a “what if” concept. It’s meant to show just one way in which transit on Mount Hood might work. In the end, transit is a complex balance between ridership and service levels, and only a thorough transit study can produce a real plan. Instead, think of this as a hiker’s plan for transit, hopefully to spur some discussion!

The proposed Boot Loop consists of three overlapping bus transit lines:

Mount Hood Line (orange) – seasonal route serving the Mount Hood Loop on weekends (Friday-Sunday) from June through October

Hood River Line (yellow) – year-round route serving the western Gorge on weekends (Friday-Sunday)

Cascade Locks Line (green) – year-round, all-week route serving the most popular trailheads in the Gorge

Here’s a map of the proposed system:

(click here for a very large, printable version of the map)

Here’s a closer look at how the schedules could work for these lines (these are clips from the Boot Loop map, shown above). All lines begin at the Gateway Transit Center, the nexus of three light rail lines on the MAX system and home to a large park-and-ride structure.

Hikers already use Gateway as an informal meet-up site for ridesharing, so it’s a natural location for the Boot Loop. The proposed service starts on the hour, beginning with an early departure of the Mount Hood line at 6 AM and the Gorge lines beginning at 7 AM.

Morning transit service on the Boot Loop

(click here to enlarge)

A total of eight buses would depart in the morning on full service, summer weekends: three for Mount Hood, three for Cascade Locks and two for Hood River. All three lines would have additional park-and-ride stops, with the Mount Hood Line stopping at the Gresham Transit Center, Sandy City Hall and Hood River, and both Gorge lines stopping at a new park-and-ride at the Sandy Delta interchange (and trailhead).

By design, the Gorge lines have several overlapping stops, with the weekend service provided by the longer Hood River line helping carry extra demand for the most popular western Gorge trailheads.

Evening transit service on the Boot Loop

(click here to enlarge)

Some Gorge stops would only have morning service, due to westbound freeway access constraints. These include the Eagle Creek, Herman Creek, Starvation Creek and Mitchell Point trailheads. With the exception of Mitchell Point, all have trail access to nearby trailheads that would have PM service, so this would mostly require some advance trip planning for hikers. If the completion of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail stays on schedule, Mitchell Point will soon have trail access to a nearby trailhead (Viento), as well.

A closer look at the proposed bus schedule reveals another benefit of overlapping service: in summer, the Mount Hood Line returning through the Gorge provides additional mid-day and evening return options, giving hikers a lot of flexibility in planning their day.

For accuracy, I clocked travel times for all three routes, including dwell time for unloading passengers, gear and bikes, so these are pretty close to what you could expect from this proposal. How fast would the ride be? Some of the more popular destinations, as measured in travel time from Gateway:

These times are competitive with driving, and if the service seems surprisingly fast, that’s because there are few stops on any of the proposed lines compared to urban transit systems.

Transit Stops for Hikers

One of the unique considerations for recreation transit is providing shelter at the trailheads. While urban systems might be able to get by with a metal sign tacked to a phone pole, hikers would need more protection from the elements, especially if they arrive early for a return trip home.

The National Park Service sets the standard for transit shelters, with substantial, rustic designs in its major parks. Similar designs would make sense for the most popular trailheads like Angels Rest, Horsetail Falls or Mirror Lake.

National Park Service example of a more substantial transit shelter (NPS)

For less busy trailheads, a simpler design could work, though the purpose of the structure is as much psychological as practical: it protects you from the elements, while also reassuring you that the bus will stop when it comes by.

Some examples of more modest structures follow:

Rustic rural transit shelter in Great Britain (Wikipedia)

Simple covered picnic table that could serve as a basic trailhead transit shelter (Wikipedia)

One reason urban transit providers avoid shelters is the cost of maintaining them, given the sheer number of stops in an urban setting (TriMet maintains more than a thousand shelters). But in a recreation setting, the shelters serve anyone using a trailhead, which opens up a number of options for building and maintaining these facilities as multi-purpose shelters and interpretive stops.

What about the buses?

One of the persistent complaints about bus transit is simply the “closeness” factor, something modern urban buses have addressed in recent years with greatly improved ventilation and climate controls. Modern excursion coaches are even better, and the vehicles used in the Boot Loop would be like these vehicles — with coach seats, onboard restrooms and large cargo areas for bikes and packs. The tradeoff is seating capacity, with excursion buses generally carrying from 44 to 52 passengers.

All-electric urban transit vehicles are becoming affordable (Wikipedia)

Buses also don’t have to be loud and polluting, anymore. Around the world, transit providers are increasingly looking at alternatives to diesel buses, with Asia boldly leading the way. China used a fleet of 50 all-electric buses in the 2008 Olympics, bringing the technology into the forefront. Metropolitan Seoul, Korea now runs an all-electric fleet, and many other urban transit providers are moving toward electric vehicles.

All-electric excursion buses providing park transit in China (Wikipedia)

Current battery technology has extended the range of electric buses to almost 200 miles on a charge, easily meeting the requirements for the Boot Loop between charges. These vehicles are currently more expensive than diesel, but prices are coming down, and they have the advantage of zero emissions and much quieter operation — big advantages when operating in a natural environment.

What would it take?

So, what would it take to bring transit to Mount Hood? For starters, an understanding that no transit system pays for itself with fares, alone. Just as automobiles pay for a fraction of the roads they require, transit typically recovers about a third of the operating expense with fares. With that assumption as a starting point, you can scale the total system accordingly, based on a rough estimate of fares.

Let’s do the math: at peak operations, with eight buses carrying a full load of 44 passengers (based on the proposed schedule), the system could draw about 700 one-way fares on a summer weekend. If you figure about $10 for a one-way ticket (or $20 round trip per hiker), that would generate $7,000 toward the 36 total hours of bus operation per day needed to run the Boot Loop, or nearly $200 per operating hour.

With most urban transit systems running operating costs of less than $100 per hour, this rough calculation seems to leave a lot of room for less-than-full buses and the other expenses of running a system, assuming an operating subsidy similar to what urban transit receives.

Parking capacity is a major problem at many trailheads; transit could help reduce demand

Electric buses cost upwards of $500,000, and the Boot Loop would require eight (including a spare). Likewise, the system would require 30 new transit stops, some with sizable shelters. Thus, the front-end capital price tag to start up the system I’ve described here would easily be in the range of $5-7 million. This startup number sounds big, but in transportation dollars, it’s well within the realm of the possible.

But the real commitment in providing transit comes in the ongoing support for operations. That’s where a useful model comes from Timberline Lodge, another venture for the public good that requires ongoing public dollars and private support to exist.

The lodge is managed by a triad consisting of the U.S. Forest Service (which owns the lodge on behalf of the public), the RLK Company (which operates the lodge and ski resort), and the Friends of Timberline, a non-profit that advocates for the preservation of the structure. Together, these partners ensure that the public enjoys the successful operation of Timberline Lodge as a public/private endeavor as no single partner could.

Sleeping is the best way to travel (Wikimedia)

A similar model could work for the Boot Loop, with the Forest Service providing trailhead bus stop improvements, ODOT providing operating funds and vehicles, and a transit provider actually operating the system. TriMet could certainly operate it, but it could also fall to the City of Sandy’s SAM system to operate, or even a private operator. They key is an understanding by the partners that all three have a stake in providing successful transit — and this is where the Forest Service and ODOT still fall short.

Another core premise behind this proposal is that hikers and bikers may be more motivated to use transit than the public at large, for reasons ranging from personal ethics (a more sustainable way to travel), convenience (relax or even sleep to and from the trailhead) to simple economics (cheaper than driving, and no car at the trailhead to get looted). Is this premise true? There’s no way to answer that question, short of a thorough market study, but this article is intended to help the conversation along.

Transit does finally seem like the right solution at the right time for Mount Hood and the Gorge. If the demand is there, are ODOT and the Forest Service ready to step up? We’ll see.

Warren Falls Solutions

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

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

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

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

Option A: Let Nature Take Her Course

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

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

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

Option B: A Large Cork

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Option C: Colossal Dental Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Steps?

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

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

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

More to come…

New Lidar Maps of Mount Hood

The age of the microprocessor has ushered in a revolution in the fields of cartography and geosciences. After all, few could have imagined streaming Google Earth imagery over a worldwide web when the first air photos were being scanned and digitized in the 1980s.

The latest innovation on the geo-data front promises still more detailed geographic information than has ever been available before: Lidar (light detection and ranging) is a new technology that uses aircraft-mounted lasers to scan the earth at an astonishing level of detail. The resulting data can be processed to create truly mind-boggling terrain images that are rocking the earth sciences.

The Oregon Department of Geology & Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) has kicked off a project to develop a statewide lidar database. The effort began with a pilot project in the Portland metropolitan region in 2006, expanding to become a statewide effort in late 2007. Some of the first available imagery encompasses the Mount Hood region, including the Columbia River Gorge. The following map shows DOGAMI’s progress in lidar coverage (in gray) as of 2011:

A New Way to See Terrain

Lidar imagery has a “lunar” look, thanks to its tremendous detail and the ability for lidar new technology to “see through” forest vegetation. This view of Larch Mountain, for example, immediately reveals the peak to be the volcanic cone that it is, complete with a blown-out crater that was carved open by ice-age glaciers:

Move closer to the Larch Mountain view, and even more detail emerges from the lidar imagery. In the following close-up view, details of the Larch Mountain Road and parking area can be seen, as well as some of the hiking trails in the area:

The Oregon lidar imagery includes elevation contour data, and for hikers and explorers using the new information to plan outings, this is probably an essential layer to include. Here is the previous close-up image of Larch Mountain with elevation data shown:

The contours are not simply a rehash of USFS ground-survey data, but instead, derived from the lidar scans. In this way, the contours are as direct a reflection of the lidar data as the shaded relief that gives the images their 3-D drama.

There are some caveats to the new lidar technology: while it is possible to see most roads and even some trails in great detail, in many areas, lidar doesn’t pick up these features at all. Lidar also edits most vegetation out of the scene, though the state does provide topographic overlays for vegetation.
DOGAMI is now streaming the lidar data over its Lidar Data Viewer website, finally putting the new imagery in the eager hands of the general public. For this article, I’ll focus on the highlights of my first “tour” of the Mount Hood and Columbia River Gorge areas covered by the project so far — a familiar landscape viewed through the “new eyes” of lidar.

Seeing the Landscape with “New Eyes”

The first stop on the lidar tour is the Nesmith Point scarp face, a towering wall of cliffs that rise nearly 4,000 feet above Ainsworth State Park, near the rural district of Dodson. The Nesmith fault scarp has always been difficult to interpret from USGS topgraphic maps, with a maze of confusing contour lines that do little to explain the landscape. Air photos are even less helpful, with the steep, north-facing slopes proving nearly impossible to capture with conventional photography.

The lidar coverage of the Nesmith scarp (above) reveals the origin of the formation: a massive collapse of the former Nesmith volcano into the Columbia River, probably triggered by the Bretz Floods during the last ice age.

The Nesmith scarp continues to be one of the most unstable places in the Gorge. Over the millennia, countless debris flows have rushed down the slopes toward the Columbia, forming a broad alluvial fan of layered debris where traffic rushes along I-84 today. In February 1996, the most recent in this ancient history of debris flows poured down the canyons and across the alluvial fan, destroying homes and closing both I-84 and the railroad for several days.

Lidar provides a new tool for monitoring unstable terrain like the Nesmith scarp, and may help in preventing future loss of life and public infrastructure when natural hazards can be more fully understood.

The ability to track detailed topographic changes over time with lidar is the focus of the next stop on the lidar tour: the Reid Glacier on Mount Hood’s rugged west face. As shown in the lidar image, above, bands of crevasses along the Reid Glacier show up prominently, and for the first time this new technology will allow scientists to monitor very detailed movements of our glaciers.

This new capability could not have come at a better time as we search for answers in the effort to respond to global climate change. In the future, annual lidar scans may allow geologists and climate scientists to monitor and animate glaciers in a way never possible before.

Moving to Mount Hood’s south slopes on the lidar tour, this image shows the junction of US 26 and Highway 35, which also happens to be built on the alluvial fan formed by the Salmon River, just below its steep upper canyon.

Unlike the nearby White River, the Salmon has had relatively few flood events in recent history. To the traveling public, this spot is simply a flat, forested valley along the loop highway. Yet, the lidar image shows dozens of flood channels formed by the Salmon River over the centuries, suggesting that the river has temporarily stabilized in its current channel — but not for long.

DOGAMI geologists are already examining the lidar imagery for these clues to “sleeping” calamities: ancient landslides, fault lines and flood zones concealed by a temporary carpet of our ever-advancing forests.

The lidar images reveal a similar maze of flood channels at our next stop, where glacial Newton and Clark creeks join to form the East Fork Hood River. This spot is a known flood risk, as Highway 35 is currently undergoing a major reconstruction effort where debris flows destroyed much of the highway in November 2006.

While the highway engineers are confident the new highway grade will hold up to future flood events, the above lidar image tells another story: with dozens of flood channels crossing the Highway 35 grade, it seems that no highway will be immune to floods and debris flows in this valley.

The new lidar images also provide an excellent tool for historical research. The following clip from below Cloud Cap Inn on Mount Hood’s north side is a good example, with the lidar image clearly showing the “new”, gently graded 1926 road to Cloud Cap criss-crossing the very steep 1889 wagon (or “stage”) road it replaced:

The Cloud Cap example not only highlights the value of lidar in pinpointing historic features, but also in archiving them. In 2008, the Gnarl Fire swept across the east slopes of Mount Hood, leaving most of the Cloud Cap grade completely burned. Thus, over time, erosion of the exposed mountain slopes may erase the remaining traces of the 1889 wagon road, but lidar images will ensure that historians will always know the exact location of the original roads in the area.

Moving north to the Hood River Valley, the value of lidar in uncovering geologic secrets is apparent at Booth Hill. This is a spot familiar to travelers as the grade between the upper and lower Hood River valleys. Booth Hill is an unassuming ridge of forested buttes that helps form the divide. But lidar reveals the volcanic origins of Booth Hill by highlighting a hidden crater (below) that is too subtle to be seen on topographic maps — yet jumps off the lidar image:

Another, nearby geologic secret is revealed a few miles to the south, near the Mount Hood Store. Here, an enormous landslide originates from Surveyors Ridge, just south of Bald Butte, and encompasses at least three square miles of jumbled terrain (below):

Still more compelling (or perhaps foreboding) is the fact that the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) chose this spot to build the transmission corridor that links The Dalles Dam to the Willamette Valley. The lidar image shows a total of 36 BPA transmission towers built on the landslide, beginning at the upper scarp and ending at the toe of the landslide, where a substation is located.

As with most of the BPA corridor, the slopes under the transmission lines have been stripped of trees, and gouged with jeep tracks for powerline access. Could these impacts on the slide reactivate it? Lidar will at least help public land agencies identify potential natural hazards, and plan for contingencies in the event of a disaster.

Mount Hood Geologic Guide and Recreation Map

You can tour the lidar data on DOGAMI’s Lidar Data Viewer, but for portability, you can’t beat the new lidar-based recreation map created by DOGAMI’s Tracy Pollock. The new map unfolds to 18×36”, and is printed on water-resistant paper for convenient use in the field.

Side A of the new map focuses on the geology of Mount Hood, with a close-up view of the mountain and most of the Timberline Trail:

(click here for a larger version)

Side B of the map has a broader coverage, and focuses on recreation. Most hiking trails and forest roads are shown, as well as the recent Mount Hood area wilderness additions signed into law in 2009:

(click here for a larger version)

You can order printed copies of this new map for the modest price of $6.00 from the DOGAMI website, or pick it up at DOGAMI offices. It’s a great way to rediscover familiar terrain through the new lens of lidar.

ODOT lays a big Goose Egg

Lost: the historic Goose Rock Bridge (1941-2011)

For this article, I’ll stray from WyEast country a bit, if only to illustrate just why those who love the Oregon landscape ought to be distrustful of the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) when it comes to respecting Oregon’s scenic and cultural legacy. Sadly, the agency simply isn’t up to the job.

Case in point: the not-quite-finished Goose Rock Bridge, located on Highway 19 where it crosses the John Day River. The site seems like a no-brainer for what is called “context sensitive design” in engineering parlance. More plainly stated, this means moving away from the 1960s highway builder’s mentality of building over-engineered, one-size-fits-all concrete monoliths that pave over the local character of a place.

(click here for a larger map)

For the engineers who designed the new Goose Rock Bridge, the evidence that something other than a miniature version of a California freeway ramp was in order was painfully obvious:

• Located in a National Monument? Check.
• Crossing the John Day, one of Oregon’s premier scenic rivers? Check.
• Located on an Oregon Scenic Byway? Check.
• Replacing a historic highway structure? Check.
• Minimal traffic volumes? Check.
• Likely to serve bicycles and pedestrians? Check.

Any of these simple checks should have sent the engineers back to the drawing board. Instead, the public received another ugly, industrial eyesore for the millions in Oregon tax dollars spent on this blunder.

Sheep Rock rises above the John Day River, just upstream from the new bridge

So, the damage is done on the John Day River at Goose Rock, and now we’re stuck with a stinker of a bridge for the next several decades: the real question is whether ODOT can stop building goose eggs like this? The answer is yes… maybe.

What’s wrong with the design?

Why is the new bridge such a stinker? To answer that question, we can reflect on the bulleted list of design considerations listed above:

Respect the location: The project is in a National Monument, along an Oregon Scenic Byway and crosses a famed, wildly popular whitewater river. As such, the bridge should have embraced National Park Service (NPS) design elements. This is a no-brainer, and there is plenty of guidance to help ODOT with the aesthetic features, had anyone thought to look. This simple step could have made the new bridge an asset to the John Day National Monument, not an eyesore.

The famed Blue Basin is a less than a mile from the new bridge

Respect the history: The new structure replaces a bridge constructed in 1941 that may have been structurally obsolete, but had plenty of charm and historic significance to complement the setting. The original structure featured graceful, fluted concrete posts anchoring ornate, painted steel balustrades and railings. The under structure was a simple pier design, but included a graceful apron of decorative concrete arches.

Had context-sensitive design been a consideration in this project, these historic details would have been a major element in the design of the new bridge. Instead, the character of the old bridge is now but a memory.

(click here for a large photo of the historic bridge)

Design for the users: The Goose Rock Bridge carries an tiny amount of traffic by urban standards — only about 300 vehicles per day, which is the equivalent of a typical suburban cul-de-sac serving just 30 homes. Just one lane of the Banfield Freeway carries this much traffic every ten minutes.

The new bridge: freeway ramp to… nowhere?

While the bridge does carry trucks, the massive design of the new structure is still wildly over-built, with freeway-scale Jersey barricades for railings that make the new bridge hostile to the cyclists, hikers and fishermen who cross this bridge while visiting the National Monument and the John Day River. Even passenger cars are punished by the new design, with the absurd concrete freeway barricades blocking views of the river for passing motorists.

Would you walk (or pedal) across this bridge?

Instead of the meager striped shoulder that supposedly serves bicycles and pedestrian, the design should have included a segregated sidewalk. This would have been a nice addition for the walkers, fishermen and less confident cyclists crossing the structure, and would have invited stopping on the bridge to admire the view — something no user would be safe doing on the new structure.

Who’s Fault is it?

Where did this simple project to replace the old bridge get off track? That’s hard to know (assuming it was ever on track). The project is one of hundreds funded through a $2 billion bridge replacement program known as the Oregon Transportation Investment Act (OTIA).

Republicans who controlled the Oregon legislature at the time OTIA was passed into law insisted that the design work for projects be sent off to private consulting firms, in this case, two firms — OTAK and Wildish Standard Paving — where the design decisions were likely made, before receiving a final approval from ODOT.

It is a poorly kept secret that the consulting firms receiving the bulk of the OTIA bridge contracts lured many of ODOT’s bridge engineers into the private sector to do the “private” work — usually with better salaries than they might have earned designing the same bridges at ODOT. While ODOT gets the bulk of the blame for accepting the lousy design of the new Goose Rock Bridge, the consultants deserve a good share of the shame, too. For its part, OTAK boasts on its website that:

Otak is the lead consulting engineer for Wildish Standard Paving on this $40 million design-build project along US395 in Eastern Oregon. Spanning nearly half the state, this project includes replacement of seven bridges along a sensitive waterway and wild and scenic corridor.

Nice words, but there is nothing in the design that suggests OTAK ever took the “sensitive waterway” and “wild and scenic corridor” into consideration when building the new bridge. It’s a firm that has done better work, elsewhere, and should have known better in this case, too.

Designed for 30,000 vehicles per day… but carrying only 300. Cyclists and pedestrians are on their own.

Another problem was probably the way in which projects were funded. Many of the bridge projects funded through OTIA followed ODOT’s “design-build” process, which combines the design, engineering and construction into a single contract.

In this case, ODOT “bundled” seven bridges scattered across the John Day country into a single ODOT contract, which unfortunately means more blunders like the Goose Rock Bridge can be expected (if they haven’t already been built). It also means that meaningful public involvement is a remote possibility, since the whole point is to speed up project delivery and cut costs wherever possible.

When will the Goose Eggs stop?

It will take a lot to pull ODOT onto a more enlightened path. This is evidenced by the $120 million the agency has already spent to devolve the design for the Columbia River Crossing to the worst conceivable option, as well as dozens of smaller eyesores built under the OTIA bridge program.

One possibility for the future is to simply remove the aesthetic design elements of project planning from the grasp of ODOT engineers, and handing this work over to architects or volunteer design panels, instead. Another is to establish a design auditor within the agency with the staffing and authority to “stop the assembly line” before construction money flows to badly designed projects.

Jersey barricades belong on the Banfield, not on John Day River bridges

Yet another option is to simply recruit and employ engineers versed in the basics of context sensitive design, and demand the same of the relatively short list of private contractors that ODOT keeps on retainer. In the long term, this is the best option, but would first take recognition by ODOT that a problem exists. Clearly, the agency isn’t there, yet, as evidenced by the Goose Rock Bridge travesty.

There are a few bright spots at ODOT, however, including several in WyEast country. These include the new Government Camp bridge over US 26 and several recent bridge replacements along I-84 in the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area. In both cases, consistent pressure from local advocates was part of the puzzle that led to better design.

In the case of the Gorge, ODOT has adopted a comprehensive architectural guidance for engineers on all aspects of highway design has been an invaluable tool, and could be applied statewide in scenic areas, like the John Day National Monument.

Context-sensitive design from the I-84 Corridor Strategy guidelines for the Columbia Gorge

In the meantime, hold your breath. It’s nearly impossible to spot a bad project in the byzantine ODOT design process before the construction contracts are let, and another concrete eyesore appears on the landscape. We can only hope that ODOT projects currently lined up for US 26 and OR 35 along the Mount Hood Loop draw from the recent successes in the area, and not the old freeway engineer mindset that produced the Goose Rock Bridge goose egg.

The Tollgate Maples… and the Highway

The two remaining Tollgate maples

Last week, the Forest Service and Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) jointly announced that the main trunk of one of two remaining Barlow Road Tollgate heritage maple trees would be coming down soon:

“A 130-year-old bigleaf maple, which marks the spot of the western-most tollgate of the historic Barlow Road, has substantial decay and poses a hazard to travelers on U.S. Highway 26 (Mt. Hood Highway). The tree is planned to be felled within the next three weeks.”

(download the press release here)

On its face, the decision is both reasonable and expected. The maples were planted in the 1880s by tollgate keeper Daniel Parker, and have lived the typical lifespan of our native bigleaf maple. A third maple apparently survived until the mid-1990s, and along with the tree that will soon be removed, framed the old tollhouse that once stood on the north side of the tollgate (where the highway is located, now).

The large trunk on the right will be removed, but the three smaller trunks on the left will be spared

The good news is that the tree will live on, through suckers that have grown to become three separate trunks – a typical form for bigleaf maples. From the press release:

“The old bigleaf maple to be felled has several stems: a main stem, with a diameter of 25 inches, and three smaller 4- to 6-inch diameter stems growing from the base of the trunk. These three smaller stems, each about 25 feet tall, will be untouched by the project, while the decaying main stem will be reduced to a height of two to three feet.”

Hopefully the companion tree on the south side of the gate will also survive through new stems someday growing from its base. This is the larger of the two trees, and because of its distance from the highway, will be allowed to grow undisturbed.

The remaining maple is far enough from the road that it will be allowed to remain, undisturbed

As trees around Mount Hood go, the two maples at Tollgate aren’t particularly remarkable — there are plenty of larger, older and more impressive bigleaf maple trees growing in less traveled areas of the surrounding forests. The uniqueness of these trees, of course, is the tie to the Oregon Trail, itself, a piece of Amercian history that is deeply embedded in our cultural identity.

Sam Barlow’s Road

Most Oregonians know the story of Sam Barlow, and his daring expedition over the shoulder of Mount Hood with Joel Palmer in the fall of 1845, in search of a land route through the Cascades.

Sam Barlow and his legendary road

By 1846, the route the two men had scouted and led their own wagons over had become a business venture for Barlow: a notoriously rough toll road that thousands of Oregon settlers would travel over in the years that followed. Many described it as the worst part of their 2,000-mile journey.

The tollgate site marked by the twin maples was the final location of at least five tollgate sites that existed along the Barlow Road over the years, with this final tollgate operating from 1883 to 1918. The gatekeeper charged $5 per wagon, with smaller fees for livestock, foot travelers and even the first automobile, which arrived at the tollgate in 1903. This was a handsome price in its day, but for most travelers, it was also a one-time charge on the way to the Willamette Valley.

The Tollgate wayside fronts one of the few remaining Highway 26 segments that has remained largely unchanged little since the first highway was built in the 1920s

As the toll road era faded away in the early 1900s, plans for the first loop highway around the mountain were underway, and much of the new route followed the original Barlow Road when first leg was completed in the 1920s.

Because the Barlow Road had a number of evolving alignments over the years, many traces of the route survived the highway-building era, and can still be seen today. The original loop highway was used through the 1950s, and was then replaced with the modern alignment we know today.

The Future of Barlow Road… and Highway 26?

The tentative tone in the opening paragraph if this article stems from the terrible record ODOT and the Forest Service have in protecting the historic, scenic and environmental legacy of the Barlow Road corridor.

Highway 26 “improvement” just east of Tollgate in 2004

While the Forest Service and ODOT have made a reasonable case for removing the heritage maple at the Tollgate site, the agency has a long history of aggressive, senseless tree removals along the Mount Hood Loop. Most of this sad legacy stems from ODOT’s unstated objective to widen the highway to four lanes through the entire Mount Hood corridor at all costs — usually cloaked as a “safety” or “preservation” projects to ensure that their policy makers and the general public don’t get in the way of the underlying road widening mission that continues to drive the agency.

One strategy used by highway engineers to ease the path toward eventual road widening is to cut trees way back along highway sections in advance, as a divide-and-conquer strategy. The goal is to avoid jeopardizing a future road-widening project with public outcry over tree removal.

This practice is also rationalized under the “safety” banner, but actually encourage speeding by removing the traffic calming effect that a tree canopy creates. The use of street trees and landscaping in urban areas to discourage speeding is a widespread and fully accepted practice in the modern transportation design, but clearly hasn’t penetrated the ODOT offices yet.

Highway 35 “improvement” currently underway near Hood River Meadows is predictably cutting trees back from the roadway

In 2004, ODOT cleared the shoulders along several sections of US 26 in the vicinity of the Tollgate site, and one concern in hearing the news of the heritage tree is that this project is a precursor to tree removal along this final stretch of mostly original highway, where big trees still grow near the road.

The unstated ODOT mission to widen the loop highway to an urban freeway standard is described in detail in these earlier WyEast Blog articles:

• Highway 26 Widening – Part One

• Highway 26 Widening Projects – Part Two

• Highway 26 Widening Postscript… and Requiem?

Unfortunately, the projects described in these articles continue to advance, with a few cosmetic details thrown in to keep them moving. Sadly, they represent almost $30 million in public dollars that will make the highway a lot more like an urban freeway, while ignoring their own consultant recommendations for far less costly, more effective safety solutions.

The first phase of ODOT’s “safety and preservation” work is slated to begin just east of Tollgate this summer, and — right on schedule — the project has already been “updated” to include widening for a new westbound travel lane, along with “separate projects to remove select trees for safety reasons.” Just as predicted.

A New Vision for the Mount Hood Loop

The beautiful wayside at Tollgate is a great example of the very kind of feature that ought to be the focus of a tourism-oriented highway design along the Mount Hood Loop. Yet ODOT is about to make changes to the highway that will make it much less friendly for visitors. Is there an alternative?

1950s Mount Hood Loop wayside at White River

In a coming piece, I’ll present a different vision for the Mount Hood Loop that rejects the current ODOT plans for road widening, and the dubious “safety” claims that ODOT officials are using to cloak nearly $30 million in projects that will turn the corridor into a freeway.

This alternative vision will offer a less costly, sustainable long-term design that actually IS safer, and also much more enjoyable for the visitors to the mountain that drive the local economy.

Proposal: Baldwin Memorial Wayside

Few in the Hood River Valley would ever recognize the name “Gilhouley Road”, much less anyone from beyond the area. And yet, at the intersection of this obscure dirt road and the Mount Hood Loop Highway lies an imposing scene that is treasured by locals and tourists, alike: the first big look at Mount Hood as you descend into the Upper Hood River Valley.

On a clear day, you’re guaranteed to see tourists pulled to the highway shoulder, snapping pictures of the mountain rising above bucolic pastures, even as semi-trucks roar past on the downgrade. The scene is irresistible.

Illegal dumping on the proposed wayside site

Earlier this year, a friend and national parks advocate from New England was visiting, and took the opportunity to drive the Mount Hood loop, and see “Oregon’s next national park”. Despite all of the mistreatment Mount Hood has seen, his sharpest critique was the shabby way in which we treat our visitors. He was amazed at the utter lack of traveler information — and confusing information, when it was provided. So, this article is inspired by his comments.

Rediscovering Waysides and Viewpoints

In the early days of auto touring, the Columbia River Gorge had the “King of Roads”, and among the great features of Samuel Lancaster’s magnificent scenic highway were the waysides and viewpoints that dotted the route. A family could load into their 1917 Packard Twin Six, and make a day of it, pulling off at each viewpoint, snapping photos with the family Brownie camera, and often following the short trails that led to still more views, or perhaps a waterfall.

Crown Point is the king of the waysides on the “King of Roads”

Times haven’t changed all that much, since, but the way we design our roads has. Tourists are now discouraged from stopping in many spots, and often take their life in their hands, if they do. Today’s highway engineers are much more concerned about keeping cars moving, at all costs.

The Hood River valley has just one “official” roadside viewpoint, located on county-owned land at Panorama Point in the lower valley. The scene is well-known, but also well removed from the Mount Hood loop highway by a couple miles. This proposal is for a companion overlook to Panorama Point, located in the upper valley, where the mountain first comes into full view for highway travelers, at the obscure junction with Gilhouley Road.

Click here for a larger map

In researching the possibilities for a new wayside at this spot, I first did a site inspection of the hillside above the highway: the area is recently logged, but with a fair number of mature trees left standing. The inevitable illegal dumping is present, of course — the scourge of public lands in highway corridors. But the view is breathtaking, with Mount Hood even more dramatically framed by hills, forests and fields than from the highway grade.

According to public lands data, the land is mostly public, and owned by Hood River County. The map (above) shows a perfect rectangle of public property that extents east along Gilhouley Road from nearby Middle Mountain, largely encompassing the wayside site. One triangle of land (indicated with a question mark) may be a private parcel, but isn’t essential to the wayside concept.

The approach to the site from Highway 35 is ideal: the intersection is located on a long, straight segment of road that would make for safe exit and entry from either direction. The presence of Gilhouley Road means that access is legally assured, with little possibility of an extended battle with ODOT for the right to build a wayside.

Looking south at the wayside site from Highway 35

The larger question is whether ODOT and Oregon State Parks would step up to make this a joint venture with local governments. It seems plausible, at least, given the lack of waysides along this portion of the loop highway, and the obviously heavy tourist traffic.

What would the wayside look like?

The site inspection revealed a surprising expanse of public land available at this site, so I’ve sketched a full-blown day use park as the proposed “Baldwin Memorial Wayside”.

As the schematic (below) shows, there could be a viewing structure, picnic areas, a nature trail and restrooms. This degree of development puts the concept into the major investment category, but certainly not beyond reach, especially since there are no other state parks or waysides in the Hood River Valley.

Click here for a larger map

Because the site has recently been logged, the wayside proposal could be equal parts park development and habitat restoration. While the main feature would be a developed overlook for highway travelers, this proposal also takes advantage of the open hillside rising above the highway. A scattering of ponderosa pine spared from logging provides an excellent opportunity for an interpretive trail built around habitat restoration.

One interesting possibility could be a restored balsamroot and lupine meadow beneath the pines. These spectacular blooming species are native to the area, are already present on the site and could become a popular draw for spring visitors to the area, just as similar wildflower spots in the Gorge are now.

What would it take?

Could a project like this really happen? Some stars are already aligned: Hood River County already owns the land and access rights to the highway at Gilhouley Road. Together, these are an invaluable step forward, since the road guarantees highway access and the land can be used as a grant match for state and federal funds. The site also benefits from access to utilities and proximity to existing emergency services. These are all core considerations when creating a new public park.

Most of all, it would take local leadership in the Hood River Valley area to secure state or federal funding through grants or other sources. Even in times of tight public budgets, this sort of project is achievable, especially if it helps reinforce the local economy and has an ecological purpose.

About the Name

Lastly, what would this new wayside be called? Well, “Baldwin Memorial Wayside” is simply borrowed from nearby Baldwin Creek, which in turn, memorializes Stephen M. Baldwin, who settled a claim along the stream in 1878. This would have made Baldwin one of the earliest settlers in the area.

The Cloud Cap Inn circa 1900

But this is where the connection to the Mount Hood view comes in: Stephen Baldwin’s son Mason “Mace” Baldwin became a well-known figure in Hood River County history in the early 1900s. Most notably, he was one of the founders of the legendary Crag Rats mountain rescue group in 1926, formed after the dramatic rescue he led that summer of an 11-year-old boy lost on Mount Hood.

Mace Baldwin not only gave the Crag Rats their name, he was also elected to be the group’s first “Big Squeak” (president), and went on to take part in many mountain rescues over the years. The Crag Rats were the first mountain rescue organization to be formed in the American West. In 1954, the Crag Rats adopted the venerable Cloud Cap Inn, on the north shoulder of the mountain, and have since been the careful stewards under special arrangement with the Forest Service.

The Crag Rats continue to be active today, and given the connection of this site to one of their founders, perhaps the “Baldwin Memorial Wayside” could include a tribute to these mountain heroes? It would certainly be a fitting memorial, and a fine way for visitors to enjoy the mountain view and learn a bit more about it’s rich human history.

Highway 26 Widening – Part One

The Mount Hood Highway in the late 1950s, when it was a 2-lane scenic byway that curved through Government Camp on its famous circuit around the mountain.

Several years ago, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) began a series of safety projects in the Mount Hood Highway (Highway 26) corridor in response to a growing number of deadly highway accidents. So far, the projects are a mixed bag, with some of the projects dramatically widening the highway in an unfortunate attempt to make it “safer”. In making the decisions, ODOT is continuing to follow a path that is gradually transforming the Mount Hood Highway into something that looks more like an urban freeway, one dubious “safety” expansion project at a time.

This recent work went into high gear when Highway 26 was designated a safety corridor by the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC), which has the effect of doubling fines for speeding and other traffic infractions. While this simple change in fines may be having an effect on driver behavior, the more aggressive action of setting (and enforcing) a new 45 mph speed limit on a portion of the corridor from Wildwood to Rhododendron has clearly been successful in bringing down speeds along this problematic corridor.

Other projects, like the cable median dividers installed on the Cherryville Hill section of the highway, are simple, inexpensive retrofits to the existing road that leave the corridor mostly untouched. These projects provide a significant improvement in safety, according to early reports (view PDF), while leaving the community character and forested highway shoulders intact.

Recent road widening projects along Highway 26 has been sold as safety improvements, but are more likely to simply encourage more speeding.

But on other safety projects in Mount Hood Highway corridor, ODOT has fallen into the old-school highway engineering trap of widening and adding lanes in the name of “safety”. The traditional thinking behind this approach is that making roads wider and adding new lanes will allow faster traffic to pass slow vehicles more safety, and to have better driver visibility and response time, thus reducing accidents.

But this traditional approach is rapidly falling out of favor, as transportation research continues to show that drivers simply drive faster with wider roads and more lanes. A truism is that on highways, speed kills, so widening a highway for safety is a contradiction, since the wider road will simply encourage more speeding and likely produce still more deadly crashes.

The “widen for safety” approach can also have profound effects on the natural environment and health and safety of communities along a corridor. Building oversized roads in rural areas brings an array of environmental and local community impacts that are rarely considered in the transportation decision-making. For example, wider roads not only require more right-of-way to be clear for new lanes, but engineers typically clear forests well beyond the roadway in such projects, justifying wide shoulders with safety and maintenance concerns, but rarely considering options that would leave roadside forests intact.

Faster speeds also have a number of unintended effects on rural communities. The immediate impact is to make it more dangerous for local traffic to enter or cross the wider highway that doubles as their main thoroughfare. Often, historic local access points are eliminated completely in the name of safety. And studies on Washington’s Snoqualamie Pass Highway also show that speeding up traffic results in drivers feeling less safe in pulling off the highway to patronize rural businesses, thereby directly affecting rural tourism economies.

ODOT cross-section of the now constructed Wildwood to Wemme safety widening that eliminated the A.J. Dwyer Scenic Area (2007).

One of the recent projects of this sort was built between Wildwood and Wemme, where scores of trees were cut in a wide swath along the highway to add road width for “safety”. Yet, the project forever altered what the traveling public had assumed was a protected corridor, thanks to a rustic “A.J. Dwyer Scenic Area” sign that had stood for decades on the highway shoulder. As it turned out, the Dwyer preserve never had a chance in the face of a major highway project presented as a “safety improvement.”

The purpose statement in the 2007 ODOT Environmental Assessment for this “safety” project reveals the underlying highway expansion mindset behind the project — to larger goal was simply to widen the highway to “match” already wide segments abutting this segment:

“The purpose of the proposed project is to improve safety on US 26 between milepost 38.75 and milepost 40.01 and to match the cross section (width of lanes, center turn lane and shoulders) to that of the roadway to the east and west of the proposed project area.”

(Source: US 26: Wildwood-Wemme Revised Environmental Assessment 2007)

Another problematic part of such “safety” projects like the Wildwood to Wemme widening is the manner in which the larger public is excluded from participating. ODOT routinely sends notices to property owners in the vicinity — in this case, several hundred residents of the Wemme community, and holds local community meetings. But public involvement beyond the local community is largely absent, especially for those outside the local area who wish to comment online.

In this example, the local outreach effort drew only three written comments, and three oral comments at a public meeting — with one individual responsible for both a written comment and oral testimony — bringing the total public input to five individuals. Surely, a project of this magnitude and permanence deserved greater review and input from the hundreds of thousands of Oregonians who use this corridor each year, but do not happen to live in the local community.

This recent safety project near Zigzag leveled hundreds of trees and converted a scenic 2-lane road into a wide highway.

A similar, recent project built between Zigzag and Rhododendron also destroyed a wide swath of forest (pictured above), and closed traditional access points for local streets in the name of safety. Because a 45 mph speed limit was also established (and enforced) in this section at the same time as the new capacity was added, we will never know if simply enforcing the lower limit might have had the very same safety benefits without the substantial costs and impacts.

One lesson from these recent “widening for safety” projects might be to strictly enforce the “safety corridor” doubling of fines first, or considering applying lower speed limits, to learn whether improved safety can be addressed more simply and cost effectively with simple changes — and with less impact on the environment and community character.

This brings us to the present, and the next round of “safety” projects in the corridor that area about to unfold, a bit further up the highway. These projects are more of the same, but entirely on public lands and in much more difficult terrain. The implication of these projects, and how to have your voice heard, is the focus of Part Two of this article.

Tunnel Point Wayside

The sprawling vista into the Gorge from Tunnel Point Wayside

The sprawling vista into the Gorge from Tunnel Point Wayside

Mostly lost in the noise of Interstate-84, the tiny Tunnel Point Wayside is a forgotten bit of ground that deserves a little more respect. This spot is named for the railroad tunnel that cuts through the lower buttress of Chanticleer Point, to the south. In the early days of Highway 30 construction in the Gorge, the wayside at Tunnel Point was designed as a scenic turnout for visitors. From here, the first big view of the Gorge spreads out, with Crown Point and Vista House framing the scene.

TunnelPointMap

Today, freeway barricades prohibit access to the wayside for eastbound travelers entering the Gorge, and the turnout is an afterthought for most westbound travelers, since the Gorge view is behind them. The wayside has thus devolved into a huge, paved layover spot for semi-trucks — a sad epitaph for what should (and could) be a premier gateway viewpoint in the Gorge.

Tunnel Point has two U.S.G.S. benchmarks and a ship beacon bolted to its tiny, rocky cape. Beyond the sterile steel guardrail that borders the turnout, basalt cliffs drop 20 feet into the river. These little cliffs are likely remnants of a more noble formation, undoubtedly quarried to help build the modern highway in the Gorge in the 1940s and 50s. But they still give a sense of the natural environment that once existed here, and provide for an interesting shoreline along the river.

This USGS benchmark was placed in 1956, likely in conjunction with modern highway construction in the Gorge.

This USGS benchmark was placed in 1956, likely in conjunction with modern highway construction in the Gorge.

Look closely at these rocky mini-bluffs and you’ll see cliff-dwelling Gorge plants making a home, while red alder and Douglas fir are colonizing the rocky shoreline on both sides of Tunnel Point. Nature is making a valiant attempt to restore this spot, even if we humans are lagging in the effort.

How could the Tunnel Point Wayside be restored? For starters, the massive expanse of asphalt could be redesigned to restore green areas, with landscaping, trees, picnic tables, restrooms and perhaps a travel information center. After all, this spot is as much a gateway to the Portland metropolitan area as to the Gorge, given that access is limited to westbound travelers.

Next, a series of walking paths could be added along the little bluffs, providing a place for travelers to stretch their legs, and learn a bit about the Gorge. A wooden Oregon History sign is already mounted in the parking area, and could be restored to become part of an improved interpretive display and walking path system.

Wasted space: the vast, barren turnout at Tunnel Point.

Wasted space: the vast, barren turnout at Tunnel Point.

These improvements would provide for a welcome refuge for travelers arriving in the Portland region from points east, but what about travelers entering the Gorge from the west? Providing access to eastbound visitors would be a tall order, requiring some sort of overpass or tunnel to deliver visitors from the opposite side of the highway. The cost, logistics and visual impacts probably make this infeasible, unfortunately.

But for now, improving the wayside for westbound traffic would be a big step in the right direction. Since the wayside is within the highway right-of-way, improvements could be built by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) with highway funds, in conjunction with Oregon Parks and Recreation. Tunnel Point Wayside deserves this new lease on life, and travelers in the Gorge deserve to enjoy this unique perspective of the river and Gorge.

Postscript: after writing this article a few months ago, I ran across a “generic” roadside pullout design in the 2005 I-84 Design Strategy — a joint ODOT, U.S. Forest Service, Federal Highway Administration and Columbia Gorge Commission planning document that lays out the framework for future improvements to the highway within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

The schematic looks tailor-made for the Tunnel Point Wayside, and in this design, reclaims much of the parking area as a park with riverside loop trail. Though hard to see in this scaled-down version, the plan calls for just ten parking spots, with trucks obviously barred from entering (the truck stops in Troutdale are only a few miles further, after all). Most interesting are bio-swales on both sides of the pullout, draining the parking area and adding more green screening from the highway. A glimpse of what might be, perhaps?