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

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

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

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THE CONCEPT

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

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

[click here for a large version of this map]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXPLORING THE ROUTE

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

West Section – Rhododendron to Government Camp

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

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

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

The Barlow Road Tollgate near Rhododendron in the 1880s

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

Pioneer Bridle Trail east of Tollgate

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

The Zigzag River passing through the old Twin Bridges campground site

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

Little Zigzag Falls

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

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

Abandoned historic highway section near the Little Zigzag crossing

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

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

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

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

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

[click here for a large version of this map]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abandoned section of the loop highway near the Barlow Road chute

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

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

Looking down the Barlow Road chute from the interpretive trail

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

Abandoned section of the old loop highway near Yocum Falls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moffett Creek Bridge construction along the Columbia River Highway in 1916

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

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

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

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

Abandoned section of the loop highway near Government Camp

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

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

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

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

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

Middle Section – Government Camp to Barlow Pass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East Section – Barlow Pass to Sherwood Campground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East Fork Hood River near Sherwood Campground in winter

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

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

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

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

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

WHERE TO START?

Touring the upper Hood River Valley in the 1950s

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

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

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

Mount Hood Loop Highway State Trail Feasibility Study 

Purpose Statement

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

Feasibility Study Objectives

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

But what would it really take..?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Western Federal Lands completed the new White River Bridge in 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting behind the idea… and creating a mandate

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

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

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

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

1915 Article – Page 1 (PDF)

1915 Article – Page 2 (PDF)

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

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

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

Proposal: Historic Mount Hood Loop State Trail (Part 1 of 2)

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1920s traveler admiring the view from Laurel Hill on the brand new Mount Hood Loop Highway

The year is 2035, and a family of tourists is just arriving at a local bed and breakfast in the village of Brightwood, Oregon, along the old Mount Hood Loop highway. They have just traveled 45 miles from Portland International Airport to Brightwood on the first of a six-day, world-class cycling tour of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge.

On the first day of their tour they followed quiet country roads through the beautiful farms and picturesque pastures of the lower Sandy River Valley. Mount Hood floated on the horizon for much of their ride, hinting at the sights to come. After a night in Brightwood, the family will continue on to the village of Rhododendron, where the newly completed Historic Mount Hood Loop (HMHL) State Trail begins a spectacular tour of some of Oregon’s finest scenery.

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Selling huckleberries at the just-opened Little Zigzag Bridge on the loop highway in the 1920s

Inspired by the recently completed Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH) State Trail, this new trail follows once forgotten or abandoned segments of the historic Mount Hood Loop highway, with new connecting segments completing the route through mossy rainforests, alpine meadows and along mountain streams. Most of the new trail is far from the traffic, noise and hazards of the modern highway corridor, taking visitors back in time and pace of what it was like to experience the original loop highway more than a century ago.

A few miles up the new route, at the Little Zigzag River, the family parks their bikes for a short hike to a shady waterfall. Next, they will climb Laurel Hill along restored sections of the original highway, where route passes the nearly 200-year old ruts from covered wagons on the Oregon Trail that can still be seen. Their next stop is in Government Camp for lunch, with a visit to the Mount Hood Cultural Center and Museum.

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Mount Hood Loop Highway construction in the early 1920s at the Little Zigzag Bridge

From Government Camp, their tour descends past Summit Meadows to iconic Trillium Lake, then heads east to the White River and Hood River Meadows. At Sherwood Campground they reach the east end of the new HMHL State Trail, and park their bicycles for the night. Here, they will stay in one of the well-stocked Forest Service yurts that overlook the East Fork Hood River. After a light dinner, the family hikes the easy trail to nearby Tamanawas Falls to cap a specular day on the mountain.

On their third day, the family begins a scenic descent along the Mount Hood Loop into the orchards of the Hood River Valley, stopping in the village of Parkdale for lunch and at roadside fruit stands along the way. They arrive in the town of Hood River by late afternoon, with plenty of time to explore the town’s galleries, shops and restaurants before checking in to the historic Hood River Hotel for the third night of their tour. 

The once (and future!) tunnel with windows at Mitchell Point

From Hood River, the family spends their fourth day on the spectacular, world-famous HCRH State Trail, traveling west through the newly restored Mitchell Point Tunnel and a stop at the short, new viewpoint hike to Viento Bluffs. A bicycle-friendly hotel in Cascade Locks serves as their base for a longer, late afternoon hike along the scenic Pacific Crest Trail.

On the fifth day of their circuit, the family continues their tour on the HCRH State Trail from Cascade Locks to the west trailhead at Ainsworth State Park, where they follow the Historic Columbia River Highway west to Multnomah Falls for lunch and another short hike to the iconic Benson Bridge. Finally, they make the climb past Crown Point and then down to their final night at a Troutdale bed and breakfast, located along the Sandy River. 

From Troutdale, the family will return to PDX and a flight home after their memorable six-day, 155-mile journey along the old Mount Hood Loop — no car required!

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In this two-part article, we’ll explore some long-forgotten sections of the old Mount Hood Loop highway, and the potential for bringing them back to life in the same way that abandoned sections of the old Columbia River Highway have been reclaimed. But does restoring the historic Mount Hood Loop Highway as a state trail make sense?

Yes, if you consider that bicycle tourism contributes $83 billion annually to U.S. economy, according to a 2017 study by the Outdoor Industry Association. Or that bicycle tourism in Oregon brings more than $400 million to our state economy, according to a 2012 study by Travel Oregon. And studies also show that touring cyclists tend to be older, wealthier and spend more when they travel, making them a coveted market in tourism.

Bicycle touring on Grand Canyon’s car-free South Rim (NPS)

Most importantly, these tourists don’t speed home after a day on the mountain to spend their money back in Portland. Instead, they invest in the local tourism economy along their multi-day tours, supporting the local lodging, restaurants, guides, museums and galleries that rely on tourist dollars to survive.

This article opened with a story about a future family traveling the 155-mile Mount Hood Loop over six days, but more ambitious riders could easily complete the loop in two or three days. Visitors with more time could easily spend a week or more exploring side trails and the towns along the loop, including a visit to historic Timberline Lodge.

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Bicycle touring options from bold to leisurely would be possible on the restored Mount Hood Loop.

The nearly completed HCRH State Trail has also shown that local cyclists and walkers use the route in day-segments, taking advantage of the many trailheads along the way to explore the trail in sections. Some of these day-use visitors are also looking for bike-and-hike adventures on foot trails that connect to the HCRH State Trail. A new HMHL State Trail could offer the same bike-and-hike opportunities, as well as winter skiing and snowshoeing.

The National Park Service is leading the way among our federal land agencies in both promoting bicycle tourism and in managing new forms of cycling — notably, e-bikes (electric bikes), which are now permitted in several parks where motorized travel is otherwise prohibited. Why permit e-bikes? Partly because of the explosive growth in e-bikes, but also because e-bikes allow more people to experience cycling. They have zero emissions and are nearly as quiet as non-electric bikes, so they are just as compatible in natural settings as conventional bikes. Because e-bikes are opening the sport of cycling to a much wider audience, they have only added to the demand for safe, scenic places to ride, and help make the case to go big in how we plan for trails in Oregon.

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Touring on the Historic Columbia River Highway near Rowena Crest (Travel Oregon)

While Oregon has been at the forefront of promoting bicycle tourism, other states with the kind of scenery that draws national and international tourism are catching on, too. Montana now sees a half-million touring cyclists visit their state each year, and other states like Colorado and Vermont are also seeing the benefits of bicycle tourism to their small towns and rural economies.

Building on our Success in the Gorge

In 1986, a decades-long effort to restore abandoned sections of the Historic Columbia River Highway as a recreation trail began with this simple passage in the legislation that created the Columbia River National Scenic Area:

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

This revolutionary provision recognized both the intrinsic value of preserving and celebrating the historic highway and the exponential growth in demand for recreation opportunities in our growing region. Both principles still apply today as the original vision for creating the HCRH State Trail nears completion. 

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ODOT has gradually rebuilt a new trail in the style of Samuel Lancaster’s original design where modern freeway construction destroyed the historic Columbia River Scenic Highway.

With our proven success in saving and restoring the old highway in the Gorge, it’s the right time to look ahead toward a new vision of completing the larger Mount Hood Loop, as it once existed. Like the Columbia River Highway, the surviving historic highway segments on Mount Hood are at serious risk of being lost forever. Neither ODOT nor the Forest Service have any plans to “preserve and restore the continuity and historic integrity” of this remaining piece of the old Mount Hood Loop.

The Vision: Restoring the Mount Hood Loop Experience

Much of the original Mount Hood Loop Highway was abandoned or bypassed in the late 1950s, when the modern, “straightened” route we know today was constructed. 

Over the decades much of the “modern” road was incrementally widened from the original two lanes in the 1960s to four lanes in over the past two decades making it much more of a “freeway” than a “scenic highway”. Most recently, ODOT spent tens of millions to make our “scenic” highway even wider at Laurel Hill, near Government Camp, in order to add lanes and a freeway-style concrete median. 

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No shortage of funding, here… ODOT just spent $37 million blasting away more of Laurel Hill in order to widen Highway 26 and add a freeway-style concrete median.

Today, drivers brave enough to pull off at the few pullouts that remain on US 26 are overwhelmed by the noise of speeding traffic and trucks. Few cyclists even consider making this scary trip, which means fewer touring cyclists to support the mountain economy.

The good news? Half-hidden under 60 years of moss and ferns, a series of historic bridges, stone fountains and other historic features still survive from the original loop highway, with spectacular roadside scenery that can’t be matched by the modern road. These historic features are mostly neglected, if not outright abandoned, and are waiting for a new vision to bring them back to life.

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The old Little Zigzag Bridge survives under a century of moss. The huckleberry pickers pictured in the second photo in this article were standing just to the left of this view.

The template for saving these historic remnants and repurposing them to become part of a new recreation route would have seemed farfetched thirty years ago. Today, our newly restored HCRH State Trail not only serves as a perfect model for how to fund, design and build such a facility, it also reminds us that the Gorge trail is part of the larger vision, with the two trails connecting to trace the entire Mount Hood Loop of the 1920s.

Three Trail Sections

It turns out the entire route of the proposed HMHL State Trail falls along the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway corridor, a special highway designation extending from Troutdale to Hood River.

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This is very good news as a starting point for restoring and reconnecting the old highway as part of the Mount Hood Loop. From a bureaucracy perspective, it means the route is already designated in a way that allows ODOT to spend money in the corridor on projects that make it safer and more scenic for visitors using any mode of travel. But if you read the scenic byway description, it’s pretty clear that bicycles are an afterthought. It doesn’t have to be that way.

For the purpose of this proposal, the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway route is the foundation for the trail concept that would restore and reconnect surviving historic sections of the original highway. Like the Historic Columbia River Highway corridor, the idea is to restore bypassed sections of the original highway to reconnect the other, surviving sections as a continuous route. 

This combination of existing and restored routes is organized into three sections that generally follow the existing Mount Hood National Scenic Byway corridor, beginning in Troutdale. The west and east sections are shared roads that mostly need better signage, while the middle, historic section would be a mix of shared roads and paved trails that follow restored highway segments connected by new trail segments. 

Here’s a description of each of the three segments of the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway, reimagined:

West Section – Troutdale to Rhododendron: The west leg of the route would follow much of the existing scenic byway from Troutdale to Sandy, traveling through the sprawling nurseries and berry fields of East Multnomah County. The current scenic byway route joins heavily traveled US 26 in Sandy, following the highway all the way to Mount Hood. It’s a noisy and dangerous route for anyone, but especially cyclists. Therefore, instead of joining US 26 there, the reimagined route would head in a different direction.

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The terrifying ride along Mount Hood 26 makes this section of the Mount Hood Scenic Byway anything but scenic for cyclists (photo: Married with Bikes blog)

From Sandy, the new Mount Hood National Scenic Byway route would turn east to follow historic Marmot Road and Barlow Trail Road to the mountain community of Zigzag. From there, a short section of old highway along the Faubion Loop and a very short, protected bike path along US 26 would complete the connection to the Rhododendron community. 

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Loop Highway State Trail Concept: West Section

This quiet, safer and more scenic alternative route is shown in dashed red on the above map. Along the way, visitors would travel through picturesque farmland with Mount Hood views and the forest communities of Marmot, Brightwood, Zigzag and Rhododendron. Several riverside parks and the Sandy Ridge mountain bike park are also located along this part of the route.

Design elements along this 37-mile segment would build on existing scenic byway guidelines, with improved way-finding and interpretive signs that would help cyclists and drivers more easily follow the loop and locate lodging and other services.

Historic Highway Section – Rhododendron to Sherwood Camp:This section is the main focus of the proposed Historic Mount Hood Loop State Trail and extends from Rhododendron to Sherwood Campground.This section includes several miles of bypassed and abandoned highway that have the potential to become a spectacular, world-class cycling experience. Today, many of these historic features are at risk, with no plans by ODOT or the Forest Service to protect them.

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The Forest Service destroyed the original paved surface a half-mile section of the historic loop highway in 2012 for no particular reason. Fortunately, the roadbed was left intact.
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Fans of the surviving sections of the old highway are out there! This sign was posted where the Forest Service destroyed the historic highway surface in the previous photo (Photo: Guy Meacham)

From Rhododendron, the section of the Mount Hood Loop route would follow a series of connecting multi-use trails that would combine with still-operating segments and long-abandoned secxtions of the old highway for the next 28 miles, traversing some of the most scenic places along the Mount Hood loop, all the while avoiding busy US 26.

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Loop Highway State Trail Concept: Historic Section

Along the way, the proposed route would pass several historic bridges, campgrounds, historic Government Camp and traces of the original Barlow Road that formed the final stretch of the Oregon Trail. There are many possible side trips along this historic section of the proposed loop, including the historic Timberline Lodge and several trailheads with bike-and-hike opportunities.

East Section – Sherwood Camp to Hood River: From the Sherwood Campground, the remaining 27 miles of the restoredMount Hood Loop would follow OR 35, a much less busy, two-lane highway with room for a shoulder bikeway. This section of the loop route would follow the same alignment as the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway, traversing some of Oregon’s most beautiful landscapes in the orchards and forests of the Hood River Valley.

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Loop Highway State Trail Concept: East Section

The east section ends at the town of Hood River, which lies at the mid-point of the HCRH State Trail. The 51-mile return route to Troutdale begins here, and traverses the exceptional scenery of the western Columbia River Gorge, including Multnomah Falls and Crown Point.

Through some miracle, this original fountain that once graced the old highway survives nearly a century later at Sherwood Camp, just a few feet from the modern highway. This is just one of many historic traces of the old route that have survived and call out for a new vision to protect and restore them.

There is no shortage of scenery along the Mount Hood Loop, but many visitors who come today are surprised and disappointed by the lack of pullouts, interpretive signs and heavy highway and winter ski resort traffic that makes it all but impossible to enjoy the modern highway. 

Can we reimagine the Mount Hood National Scenic Byway to provide a better alternative to the rush of the modern highways by restoring the surviving segments of the historic highway? Our experience in the Gorge says yes, and the old Mount Hood Loop could join the Gorge as a world-class touring destination. But what would it take to get there?

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Next up in Part 2: how we get there, including a virtual tour the surviving sections of the historic Mount Hood Loop Highway and the opportunities for restoring this exceptionally scenic old road as a state trail.