Proposal: Viento Bluff Trails

Looking west from the summit of Viento Bluff

Looking west from the summit of Viento Bluff

This is the third in a series of new trail proposals for Oregon State Parks land in the Columbia Gorge. This article follows previous proposals for a Bridal Veil Canyon Trail and Angels Rest Loop. All three have the potential to fit into the Oregon State Parks and Recreation (OSPRD) master planning for the Columbia Gorge that is happening right now.

Like the Angels Rest Loop and Bridal Veil Canyon proposals, this trail would be aimed at families, vacationing visitors to the region and those trying out hiking for the first time. Unlike the earlier proposals, the Viento area is little known to most who visit the Gorge. For a moderate effort, this proposal would provide explore the unique, transitional ecosystem found in the mid-section of the Gorge, as well as some sweeping views and towering cliffs.

Trail map of the proposal

Trail map of the proposal

(Click here for a larger map)

The Viento proposal stitches together several rustic service roads that already exist with new trail segments that would take hikers to three separate, cliff-top viewpoints. All three viewpoints rise high above the popular campgrounds at Viento State Park, and would provide an excellent, moderate hiking challenge for campers and day-visitors, alike.

The map above shows the proposed network of trails, and the oblique view, below, gives a sense of the steep topography that would make the Viento area so interesting as a hiking destination.

Perspective view of the proposal

Perspective view of the proposal

(Click here for a larger map)

The proposed Viento Bluff trails would also build on a planned extension of the mostly-complete Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail, providing bike-and-hike opportunities along this emerging, world-class facility. A six-million dollar extension of the trail will soon extend east from the Viento Trailhead to Perham Creek, completing another link in a route that will eventually extend from Troutdale to The Dalles.

A bit of history on the name “Viento” is in order. While the word means “windy” in Spanish — an often fitting name for this narrow spot in the Gorge — the name was actually coined in the 1800s for an early railroad stop in the area using the first two letters from the surnames of railroad builder Henry Villard, one of his investors, William Endicott, and a local railroad contractor named Tolman (the origin of the name and other local history can be found on an interpretive display near the entrance to Viento State Park).

The following is a detailed description of the three viewpoints that make up the Viento Bluffs and proposed trails that would lead to them.

Viento Bluff Trail

Viento Bluff is a familiar landmark to those traveling I-84

Viento Bluff is a familiar landmark to those traveling I-84

The main focus of the proposed trail network is Viento Bluff, the most prominent of the rocky outcrops that rise above Viento State Park, and a familiar landmark to travelers passing through the Gorge.

While Viento Bluff rises as sheer, 300-foot vertical wall on its north face, the steeply tilted basalt flows that form the bluff have a relatively gentle, meadow-covered south slope. The proposed summit trail would circle the bluff to reach this southern approach.

Historic CCC path along Viento Creek

Historic CCC path along Viento Creek

The trail would begin at the existing day use parking area at the Upper Viento Campground, initially traveling on an existing footpath that follows Viento Creek into its shady, forested canyon. Here, the project would consist of a new footbridge connecting the existing trailhead to the old footpath, and improving the existing tread to basic trail standards.

Historic CCC path

Historic CCC path

The existing footpath appears to be one of the many vestiges of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the Viento area. The CCC was created by Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of his Great Depression-era “New Deal” to put young men to work making infrastructure improvements to public lands across the country.

Several stone retaining walls in the area, the original (upper) Viento campground and a collapsed campground water house still remain from the CCC period. The surviving footpath originally led to the water house, but now terminates at its moss-covered ruins, along a pretty section of Viento Creek.

Remains of the old CCC water house along Viento Creek

Remains of the old CCC water house along Viento Creek

From near the end of the existing footpath, the proposed route would turn east, climbing the slope to Viento Bluff in an easy traverse along a heavily used game trail. The deer and elk have done a find job in this section, with a grade that works well as a hiking trail!

Game trail leading from Viento Creek to the bluff

Game trail leading from Viento Creek to the bluff

Soon, this game trail reaches a forested saddle behind Viento Bluff, and enters one of the most lush, abundant stands of poison oak anywhere in the Gorge — one of the few obstacles to realizing the Viento Bluffs trail.

While it’s an ominous sight for anyone sensitive to poison oak, routing a trail to the bluff through this section would be less difficult than appearances might suggest. The open, meadow-covered south slope of the bluff is only about 20 yards beyond the poison oak section, so the exposure would be no more than many trails in the Gorge that pass through poison oak patches. But it would need to be built carefully, and maintained accordingly.

Poison Oak heaven in the saddle south of Viento Bluff!

Poison Oak heaven in the saddle south of Viento Bluff!

From the saddle, the route reaches the stuff of a dirt service road approaching from the east (more about that in a moment), and from this point, the proposed summit trail would begin an exceptionally scenic ascent of Viento Bluff’s south slope, traversing a steep meadow in switchbacks through scattered White Oak and Ponderosa Pine.

The south slope of Viento Bluff as viewed from the East Bluff

The south slope of Viento Bluff as viewed from the East Bluff

The summit of Viento Bluff is exposed on three sides, with vertical drops into the forest below. If this were a remote wilderness viewpoint, simply terminating the viewpoint trail at the top would be safe enough. But because it’s a state park with families and less-experienced hikers, some sort of cable or wood railing would probably be needed here. The wood railings at the Bridal Veil State Park overlook might be a good model for this site, and easily constructed here.

Gorge panorama from Viento Bluff

Gorge panorama from Viento Bluff

The view from the summit of Viento Bluff is impressive, especially given the relatively moderate climb required. The rocky slopes of Dog Mountain dominate the view across the Columbia River, and the sweeping panorama extends as far west as Table Mountain and east to Mitchell Point and the town of White Salmon, beyond.

The summit is quite spacious, providing room for visitors to sit and spend some time taking in the scene or having a trailside picnic. It is also far enough above the busy river corridor to be largely beyond the noise of traffic, while still allowing for interesting views of trucks, trains and barges passing by in the busy transportation corridor provided by the Columbia River Gorge.

East Bluff Trail

The East Bluff as seen from Viento Bluff

The East Bluff as seen from Viento Bluff

The second trail in this proposal would lead from the Upper Viento Campground and trailhead to the East Bluff, an impressive basalt outcrop that is nearly as imposing as Viento Bluff. The East Bluff rises directly above I-84, yet is oddly less visible from the freeway, and therefore less familiar to travelers.

The route to the East Bluff would begin along the proposed extension of the HCRH State Trail, east of the Upper Viento Campground. From a point along the State Trail route, about one quarter mile beyond the campground, a primitive service heads south, climbing the steep ravine between the East Bluff and Viento Bluff. This spur road soon reaches in the power line corridor that crosses the saddle to south of the two bluffs.

Mitchell Point and White Salmon in the distance from the East Bluff

Mitchell Point and White Salmon in the distance from the East Bluff

From the saddle, one fork of the service road heads to the right, to Viento Bluff, as mentioned previously in this article. Along with the proposed new trail from Viento Creek, this route would create a loop hike to Viento Bluff, and a connection to the East Bluff (see map).

The left fork of the service road heads toward the East Bluff. This proposal calls for a new trail here, leaving the service road and traversing the open south slopes of the East Bluff in switchbacks.

The view west toward Dog Mountain and Stevenson from the East Bluff

The view west toward Dog Mountain and Stevenson from the East Bluff

The views from the East Bluff are expansive, encompassing the same stretch of the Gorge as the view from Viento Bluff, but including a unique perspective of Viento Bluff, itself.

The true summit of the East Bluff has a brass 1939 U.S. Geological Survey marker stamped “Viento”. The survey marker dates to the year when Bonneville Dam had just been completed, along with the old power line corridor behind the bluffs that took power from the new dam to Hood River and points east — likely the reason for a survey marker in this spot.

USGS marker on the summit of the East Bluff

USGS marker on the summit of the East Bluff

The summit of the East Bluff is quite broad, and even somewhat brushy in spots. But several dramatic viewpoints ring the edges — much like Angels Rest in the western Gorge, but with a lot less effort. Like Viento Bluff, the cliffs are extremely exposed, and would require some sort of cable or wood fencing, given the location in a state park and relatively easy access.

The loop connection to the proposed Viento Bluff trail (from Viento Creek) would allow for both summits to be included on a longer hike, or simply a hike around Viento Bluff for those who don’t want to climb the actual summit.

West Bluff Loop Trail

West Bluff from the Viento interchange

West Bluff from the Viento interchange

The third piece of the Viento proposal is a short loop trail to the west bluff, a basalt wall rising 250 feet above the Viento interchange and Upper Viento Campground trailhead.

The purpose of the West Bluff trail is to provide a more approachable destination for less ambitious or able-bodied hikers and families with small children. While not as imposing as Viento Bluff and the East Bluff, the West Bluff still delivers impressive views of the Columbia Gorge and an interesting, almost aerial view into the Viento Campground and interchange area, directly below.

This service road would form the east leg of the West Bluff trail loop

This service road would form the east leg of the West Bluff trail loop

The east leg of the loop would follow an existing dirt service road south from the existing trailhead, then fork uphill along a second service road that crosses within a few hundred yards of the West Bluff crest. A spur trail would climb the last stretch to the cliff-top viewpoints. Like the other summits, some sort of fence or railing would be in order here, as the cliffs drop over 200 feet to the trailhead below.

The west leg of the loop would be a new trail climbing a ravine directly below the West Bluff, connecting to the new summit spur. The complete West Bluff loop would cover less than a mile, and gain less than 300 feet elevation, yet give hikers a real sense of achievement. The West Bluff loop would also be the closest of the proposed trails to the main Viento Campground, so well situated to serve campers interested in a modest hike.

An interesting option for the West Bluff trail would be a barrier-free route. While this would be a much more substantial undertaking, it would be one of the few viewpoint trails in the Columbia Gorge available for visitors with limited mobility.

What would it take?

Much of this proposal builds on the repurposing of existing service roads to become wide trails — at least most of the time. The idea is to allow utility workers to access these roads when needed, but functioning as wide trails as their primary purpose. The service roads are owned and maintained by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), and see little use by the agency, so a shared purpose might be a way for the BPA to partner with Oregon State Parks to enhance and maintain these routes.

Historic retaining wall at Viento from the CCC era

Historic retaining wall at Viento from the CCC era

There are also several new hiking trail segments in this proposal. All would be straightforward to build, with few topographic or environmental obstacles. Because they are located in a highly accessible area (access from I-84), these new trails could be excellent candidates for construction by volunteer groups like Trailkeepers of Oregon.

Upper Viento Campground restroom is within a few yards of the trailhead

Upper Viento Campground restroom is within a few yards of the trailhead

The HCRH State Trail already has a major trailhead at Viento

The HCRH State Trail already has a major trailhead at Viento

One of the advantages of expanding hiking opportunities in the Viento area is the potential to take advantage of the existing recreation infrastructure: two campgrounds, a day use area, a large supply of trailhead parking, restrooms within a few yards of the trailhead, access to the HCRH State Trail and direct freeway access to I-84. Adding new trails to the area would simply make better use of these existing amenities in addition to enhancing the camping experience at Viento State Park.

What can you do..?

If you like this proposal, there is a unique opportunity to weigh in right now and make your voice heard: share your comments with Oregon Parks & Recreation Division (OPRD), the state agency that operates Viento State Park, and the sole agency responsible for trail planning in the park.

Seldom-seen rubber boa spotted along Viento Creek

Seldom-seen rubber boa spotted along Viento Creek

Over the next year the state is conducting a long-range planning effort to scope future recreation needs in the Gorge. [url]You can weigh in with your thoughts over here.[/url] So far, the State Parks have had fairly light participation in their public outreach, so it’s important to make your views known!

Please consider including links to the Veinto Bluffs, Bridal Veil Canyon and Angels Rest Loop proposals in this blog when you comment — here are the quick links to paste into your message:

https://wyeastblog.org/2012/01/15/proposal-bridal-veil-canyon-trail/

https://wyeastblog.org/2013/08/31/angels-rest-loop-one-way-trip-to-heaven/

https://wyeastblog.org/2013/09/22/proposal-viento-bluff-trails/

And as I’ve pitched in previous articles, please consider supporting Trailkeepers of Oregon, a non-profit, grass-roots organization that offers meet-up trail stewardship projects in the Gorge and around the region (full disclosure: the author is a founding and current board member of TKO and number one fan of the organization!)

Angels Rest Loop: One Way Trip to Heaven?

Looking across the Columbia River in winter to the Silver Star Range from Angels Rest

Looking across the Columbia River in winter to the Silver Star Range from Angels Rest

The popular hike to Angel’s Rest in the Columbia River Gorge is a rite of passage for long-time Oregonians and newcomers alike, because for many of us, this beautiful trail was our first hiking experience. I first hiked the trail sometime in the 1970s, and have returned many times over the years — most memorably, on the inaugural Trailkeepers of Oregon stewardship project in April 2008.

The (formerly skinny and shaggy) author on top of Angels Rest in 1981 and an older, wiser and (and much balder) version in 2013!

The (formerly skinny and shaggy) author on top of Angels Rest in 1981 and an older, wiser and (and much balder) version in 2013!

The trail has a lot to offer, with sweeping views of the Columbia River Gorge and a brief streamside section along Coopey Creek (which cascades over a pair of waterfalls below the trail). Since the Multnomah Falls Fire of 1991, the hike has offered a close-up look at a recovering forest along the upper reaches of the trail. The 1,600 elevation gain over 2.4 miles to the top of Angels Rest is within reach for most hikers, yet challenging enough to give any hiker a thrill when reaching the rocky, often blustery summit.

The Angels Rest trail also has the distinction of being among the most accessible to Portland, with a trailhead located at a freeway interchange 30 minutes from downtown, and with enough parking to supply a small army. Add the emergence of year-round hiking on our low-elevation trails in recent years, and the unfortunate result is one of the most rapidly deteriorating trails in our region.

The Angels Rest trailhead was expanded and improved in 2000 to include stone walls and trailhead signage in the style found elsewhere along the Historic Columbia River Highway

The Angels Rest trailhead was expanded and improved in 2000 to include stone walls and trailhead signage in the style found elsewhere along the Historic Columbia River Highway

The gradual deterioration of this old trail takes many forms. Along the lower section, the once-narrow traverse across moss and fern-covered talus slopes has broken down, with the path now straddling trees (the original trail is the upper third of the tread):

AngelsRestLoop04

Over time, this could damage the roots of the tree in the above photo to a point where it cannot survive. This threatens not only the tree but also the trail, as tree roots are critical in holding steep, loose Gorge slopes together in a climate where annual rainfall exceeds 100 inches per year.

This badly eroded spot is the overlook above Coopey Falls, along the lower trail:

AngelsRestLoop05

The damage here is fairly obvious: the original trail hugged the vegetation line along the right, but the crush of hikers attempting to view the falls has stripped away both vegetation and soil on the left. Over time, this has left roots of trees clinging to edge of the cliffs below exposed and unlikely to survive, making the trees themselves less likely to survive.

Beyond the Coopey Falls viewpoint, the trail reaches the first of many sections showing the impact of year-round hiking on the trail. Here, winter hikers have worn the new path to the left of the main trail tread in an effort to avoid standing water and mud in the main trail, which has become trenched from overuse:

AngelsRestLoop06

Further up the trail, the path has become so wide that the edges are almost hard to determine:

AngelsRestLoop07

The hikers in the distance in the view above offer a clue as to how this happens: as trails widen from overuse, hikers start waking side-by-side. It’s a natural instinct, but one that the trails were never designed to accommodate.

The scene below shows another example of winter hikers wearing down the edges of the formal trail in an effort to stay out of the mud:

AngelsRestLoop08

While walking adjacent to the trail might work for the first few hikers along one of these sections, in the end, it just creates more mud during the wet season — and an even wider trail as hikers continue to push the edges of the trail outward.

Until a few years ago, the effects of hiking were on display to epic proportions along an upper section of trail, where an enormous mud pit formed as hikers continued to walk ever higher on the shoulders of the widening trail:

AngelsRestLoop09

The section shown above devolved so badly that in 2008, the [url]Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO)[/url] worked with the U.S. Forest Service to simply bypass that segment with a new trail alignment. The following photo shows TKO volunteers constructing this new section in April 2008:

AngelsRestLoop10

While the new trail was built to a conventional width, the continued heavy, year-round crush of hikers has since “widened” this section to nearly double its original width in just five years:

AngelsRestLoop11

The upper trail includes several switchbacks, and these are traditionally the Achilles heel of any Gorge trail. Newbie hikers and kids can’t seem to resist cutting switchbacks.

Normally, this is manageable by simply blocking shortcuts to discourage the relatively small number of rogue hikers. But with the heavy foot traffic on the Angels Rest Trail, the sheer volume of switchback cutting overwhelms the trail, turning well-designed turns into a muddy, sloping mess:

AngelsRestLoop12

The above switchback was also built with the trail relocation project in 2008, and has barely survived five years of heavy travel from Angels Rest hikers.

The long-term answer to overuse at Angels Rest is to provide new, badly needed hiking alternatives in the Columbia Gorge, such as the Bridal Veil Canyon Trail proposed on this blog.

But Angel’s Rest needs help, too. One way to help this old trail survive for future generations to enjoy is to simply cut the traffic in half — not through restrictions or trail fees, but by creating a one-way hiking loop. The rest of this article outlines a proposal for making this happen.

Creating an Angels Rest Loop Trail

Winter view into the Gorge from Angels Rest

Winter view into the Gorge from Angels Rest

The concept of a one-way Angels Rest loop is simple: construct a separate, new route to Angels Rest that would form the return leg of the loop. The result would instantly cut the number of boots on the Angels Rest Trail by half, allowing the existing sections to be rehabilitated so that this old trail can last indefinitely.

AngelsRestLoop14

[click here for a large map]

The proposed loop trail would split from the existing route about 0.2 miles from the trailhead, just before the current route heads across the lower talus slopes (see map, above). The existing trail would continue to be 2-way for the first 0.2 miles, where the gentle terrain allows for a wider trail.

The new route would function as the downhill portion of the loop so that it could be designed with downhill travel in mind. This would include a gentle incline and minimizing the number of switchbacks compared to the current route. This could have tremendous benefits for the existing route, as a disproportionate share of trail damage to the existing route is from hikers speeding downhill.

Upper Coopey Falls would be a highlight of a connector between the new and existing trails

Upper Coopey Falls would be a highlight of a connector between the new and existing trails

The new return trail would also be designed to have a mid-point connection to the existing trail via a new bridge across Coopey Creek at Upper Coopey Falls (pictured above). The purpose of this connection is to bring hikers to the upper falls on a formal trail where several muddy boot paths have already been worn into the canyon walls by hikers seeking a view.

The mid-point connection would also allow less hardy hikers or families with small children to simply complete a lower loop of just over a mile in length, while still respecting the one-way trail system. The mid-way connector would also lead lower-loop hikers past beautiful Coopey Falls, one of the highlights of the proposed return trail.

The new trail would take hikers past the base of beautiful Coopey Falls, located on public land, but currently only reachable by crossing private property

The new trail would take hikers past the base of beautiful Coopey Falls, located on public land, but currently only reachable by crossing private property

From the summit of Angels Rest, the proposed return route would descend through the hanging valley immediately east of summit. This new route would skirt little-known Foxglove Falls, a wispy 120-foot seasonal cascade hidden in the forest, then switchback down to a basalt bench that wraps around the base of Angel’s Rest. Here, the trail passes through the fire zone, and would have broad views of the Gorge before descending in a gentle curve to the new junction at the Upper Coopey Falls connector trail.

The proposed loop trail would traverse below these cliffs on the north side of Angels Rest

The proposed loop trail would traverse below these cliffs on the north side of Angels Rest

From the Upper Coopey Falls connector, the new route would continue to descend, passing the base of Coopey Falls on a new footbridge, then traversing west, where it would reconnect with the main trail near the trailhead, completing the loop.

The new trail would have views like this of the Columbia River Gorge

The new trail would have views like this of the Columbia River Gorge

The new return trail would travel 1.7 miles in its descent, exactly the same length as the climb along the existing trail. Thus, the hike to Angel’s Rest along the new loop would retain the same mileage and elevation gain as it does today.

The Gorge viewpoints along the proposed new trail, along with stops at Foxglove Falls, Upper Coopey Falls and Coopey Falls, would be significant enhancements to the hike, making a classic trail even better. So, what would it take to realize this proposal?

An Idea within Reach…

This 1911 map shows an upper trail to Angels Rest from the long-vanished mill town of Palmer, long before the Depression-era trail we know today was constructed

This 1911 map shows an upper trail to Angels Rest from the long-vanished mill town of Palmer, long before the Depression-era trail we know today was constructed

The proposed loop trail would be built entirely on public lands, and much of the work could be done by volunteers working in partnership with the Forest Service. Beyond the actual trail, here are some of the other elements of the project, and more opportunities to involve volunteers in the work:

Footbridges: the proposed new loop trail would require two new footbridges: at Coopey Falls and Upper Coopey Falls. These could be excellent volunteer opportunities, as volunteers have helped construct other trail bridges in the Gorge in recent years

Invasive Species: like many spots in the western Gorge, the slopes of Angel’s Rest host invasive species – in particular, English ivy, Himalayan blackberry and Shiny Geranium. The new loop trail segment would actually improve the ability to control these species by providing new access to affected areas. Native plant advocates could become partners in the project in order to remove invasive plants as part of trail construction.

Even on the grayest of winter weekends, cars spill far beyond the overflow parking area at Angels Rest, lining the shoulders of the Historic Highway

Even on the grayest of winter weekends, cars spill far beyond the overflow parking area at Angels Rest, lining the shoulders of the Historic Highway

Trailhead Facilities: the existing parking area, including the large overflow area and shoulder parking along the Historic Columbia River Highway, is more than adequate to serve the proposed loop. In fact, the loop is in response to a trail that is inadequate for the parking! But the trail does not have restroom facilities, a serious deficiency with unpleasant repercussions for a site that can have as many as 100 cars on a busy weekend. The Forest Service and Oregon State Parks and Recreation could partner to address this need as part of creating the loop trail.

Ongoing Stewardship: ongoing maintenance of the trail is also well suited for volunteers, and could be a blueprint for a new, more intensive effort to keep trails in top condition, addressing trail damage before it spirals. The trailhead is close to Portland and easy to find, and the proposed loop route would be short enough for most volunteers to navigate with equipment, or when carrying out debris. The low elevation of the trail means more opportunities for volunteer work, and the beauty and close proximity to Portland would make it an attractive volunteer option.

What can you do?

Angels Rest was one of the scenic highlights along this 1938 Auto Club guide to the Historic Columbia River Highway.

Angels Rest was one of the scenic highlights along this 1938 Auto Club guide to the Historic Columbia River Highway.

If you like this proposal, there area couple of opportunities to weigh in right now and make your voice heard:

1. Send off an e-mail to the staff at the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area: here’s the link (you can use the feedback form at the bottom of their web page). This is the federal agency responsible for most of the trails in the gorge, and would be the lead agency in making this loop happen.

2. Weigh in with Oregon Parks & Recreation Division (OPRD), the state agency that operates the series of state parks along the Historic Columbia River Highway. While much of the proposed Angels Rest loop trail travels on U.S. Forest Service lands, the loop also crossed state parks lands. Over the next year the state is conducting a long-range planning effort to scope future recreation needs in the Gorge. You can weigh in over here, using their blog comment format to make your voice heard.

The State Parks and Forest Service national scenic area staff work together to plan and maintain trails in the Columbia River Gorge, so weighing in with the state planning effort is an opportunity to make any of your ideas on recreation needs known to both agencies. So far, the State Parks have had fairly light participation in their public outreach, so it’s important to make your views known!

Don’t be shy about including links to the Bridal Veil Canyon and Angels Rest Loop proposals in this blog, either — here are the quick links to paste into your message:

https://wyeastblog.org/2012/01/15/proposal-bridal-veil-canyon-trail/

https://wyeastblog.org/2013/08/31/angels-rest-loop-one-way-trip-to-heaven/

Finally, consider supporting Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO), a local non-profit, grass-roots organization that offers meet-up trail stewardship projects in the Gorge and around the region (full disclosure: the author is a founding and current board member of TKO and number one fan of the organization!)