Posted tagged ‘Timberline Trail’

Dollar Lake Fire: Five Years After

October 22, 2016

The Dollar Lake Fire from Bald Butte in August 2011

In 2006, the Bluegrass Fire raced along Bluegrass Ridge, torching the subalpine forests above Elk Meadows on Mount Hood’s east flank. In 2008, the Gnarl Fire burned a much larger swath of the east slope, from just above Elk Meadows to the Eliot Branch canyon, nearly destroying century-old Cloud Cap Inn, Snowshoe Lodge and the historic structures at nearby Tilly Jane Campground. Heroic efforts by Forest Service firefighters spared these priceless jewels of Mount Hood’s history, with the fire burning within a few yards of these old structures.

In August 2011, the Dollar Lake Fire was the third in a string of major fires that would ravage the slopes of Mount Hood in a period of just five years, this time burning the north slopes of the mountain. Lightning started the Dollar Fire started on a weekend, just below the popular Elk Cove trail and was immediately reported by hikers in the area.


The Dollar Lake Fire burning below Elk Cove

The Dollar Fire soon erupted to become one of the most fiercely fought and carefully documented fires in recent memory as it swept to the west, eventually threatening Bonneville Power Administration transmission lines at Lolo Pass and the nearby Bull Run Watershed, source of Portland’s drinking water.

The fire wasn’t fully contained until the end of September of that year, eventually burning more than 6,200 acres of forest (maps and photos of the fire can still be viewed on the InciWeb interagency website).


Flare-up in the Dollar Lake Fire in August 2011

Firefighting efforts were initially slow to arrive at the Dollar Fire, and some (including the media and members of Oregon’s Congressional delegation) accused the Forest Service of purposely allowing the fire to grow because it was inside the Mount Hood Wilderness where it didn’t threaten areas open to commercial logging. But a subsequent investigation pointed to overstretched firefighting resources, a growing problem as the federal land agencies struggle to fund the spiraling forest fire phenomena across the west.


Location of the Dollar Lake and Gnarl fires

 [click here for a large map]

By the time fall rains arrived, the fire had burned almost the entire north slope of Mount Hood, a 5-mile swath stretching from the Eliot Branch on the east to Cathedral Ridge on the west. Almost all of the burn was subalpine Noble fir forest, though a few old-growth mountain hemlock stands along the Timberline Trail were burned at Elk Cove and Cairn Basin.


Timeline and extent of the Dollar Lake fire

[click here for a large map]

The eastern extent of the Dollar Burn contained large stands of Western larch, a fire forest species adapted to frequent, low intensity fires. Most of these trees did not appear to survive the fire, however, due to its extreme heat and intensity.


Ground zero for the Dollar Lake fire is the foreground in these views from the Elk Cove Trail taken before the burn and five years after the fire

 [click here for a large map]

In fact, very few trees survived the fire except along its margins, where a beneficial mosaic burn pattern left standing trees and some undergrowth to help begin the recovery phase. This is the new reality facing our forests, as a century of fire suppression continues to fuel catastrophic fires that completely destroy forest on a massive scale.

Summer 2012: Immediate Aftermath


Total destruction along Vista Ridge in 2012

The dense network of trails that cross through the Dollar Burn provide a front-row seat to how (and if) our forests recover from catastrophic fires inside a protected wilderness, without human intervention. In the immediate aftermath of the Dollar Fire, the picture was bleak. In the heart of the burn, the forest kill was nearly complete, as even the duff layer on the forest floor was burned away, exposing a thin layer of volcanic soils vulnerable to erosion.


Blackened trees in 2012, before scorched bark began to peel away

One of the first lessons of the fire was the importance of tree debris in stabilizing the unprotected soil. The living trees in this forest weren’t burned so much as boiled alive as their living cambium layer was superheated beneath their bark. The surprising result in the first season after the fire was scorched bark peeling away to reveal untouched wood underneath.

The piles of peeled bark provided an immediate layer of mulch over the exposed soil, with smaller twigs and limbs also helping to form the beginnings of a new duff layer on the burnt soil.


Trees inside the burn shed their scorched bark in the first year, helping stabilize exposed soils

The roots of some understory plants in the worst of the burn zone also survived the fire, including huckleberry, beargrass and avalanche lilies. Two years after the fire, seeds blown into the burn began to establish, and the recovery was underway in surprisingly short order. Read more about the initial recovery in this 2012 WyEast Blog article.

2016: Five Years of Recovery

This year marks the five-year anniversary of the fire, and the recovery within the Dollar Burn is in full swing, though it will take a century or more for the area to fully recover – more on that in a moment.

How does the Dollar Burn of today compare to the first summer after the fire? As the July scenes along the Vista Ridge Trail (below) show, the understory is recovering rapidly.


Comparison of the recovery along the Vista Ridge Trail in 2012 and 2016

In 2012, avalanche lilies sprung from bulbs spared by the heat of the fire, creating striking stripes of white blossoms and bright green foliage where these plants survived. A few beargrass (a close relative of the lily family) also survived, thanks to deep underground roots that escaped the fire. A few scattered huckleberry and other understory shrubs also sprouted from surviving roots in the first summer after the fire.

In recent years, the beargrass and avalanche lily display in the Dollar Burn has become a spectacular attraction for early season hikers on the Vista Rigde Trail as these fire survivors continue flourish and spread in the bright new conditions. Other shrubby survivors, like huckleberry, have also continued to recover, thriving in the bright new conditions created by the fire.

But the story in the last few years of the recovery has been the arrival of new plants in the burn zone, blown in by seed or deposited by wildlife. These include more understory species, but also the first few conifers to take root.


This trailside log was a favorite resting spot for hikers on the Vista Ridge Trail before the Dollar Fire. Since the fire, hikers still rest here and have begun to polish away the charred surface along the top of the log – presumably with a charcoal backside as their souvenir!

After five years, most of the scorched bark has fallen from the torched trees, and the trunks underneath have bleached from their initial golden shades of newly exposed wood to weathered silver and gray shades of a “ghost forest”.

The standing ghost trees still retain a surprising number of their limbs, and perhaps more surprising, very few have toppled in the five years since the fire. This is testament to the fact that the core of these trees didn’t burn. Most will stand for decades before insects and decay finally bring them down.


These felled Noble fir along Vista Ridge Trail reveal a forest that was more than 300 years old before the fire

A few trees in the burn zone were cut by firefighters in an attempt to create fire lines. Today, these cut stumps provide a look at the age of this forest. While the trees in the Dollar Burn aren’t particularly large by Pacific Northwest standards, they were actually quite old. The cut tree shown above was more than 300 years old and stump below is from a tree that had grown on Vista Ridge for 360 years!


This ancient Noble fir was 360 years old when it succumbed to the catastrophic Dollar Lake fire

The extreme weather conditions and thin soils make for a hard life for subalpine trees, stunting their relative size compared to lower-elevation forests.

The relatively modest size of these trees compared to their impressive age is another reminder of the vulnerability of our subalpine Noble fir forests that are still being logged commercially. While they continue to be “harvested” in unprotected areas under the premise of sustainability, these trees take centuries to reach a size worthy of commercial cutting, making the “harvest” more like mining than tree farming.

The Pioneers


Fireweed is the rock star of the pioneer plants species in the burn zone

The understory in the Dollar Burn is noticeably greener just five years after the fire, and a closer look reveals a handful of plant species doing the heavy lifting at this stage in the forest recovery. At the top of the list of pioneer species is fireweed, (described here in the previous article in this blog).


Fireweed crowding the Vista Ridge Trail in 2016

True to its name, fireweed has evolved to be the first in line to resettle burned or disturbed areas. These plants produce massive quantities of winged seeds that can quickly reach very large areas. They are also hardy perennials with large root systems, so also play an important role in stabilizing exposed soil.

In the Dollar Burn, fireweed has already colonized large areas, creating a spectacular flower displays from mid-summer through fall.


Showy blooms of Fireweed in late summer on Vista Ridge

Look between the drifts of fireweed and you’ll find other pioneers taking root. One surprising species is the diminutive wild dwarf bramble (sometimes called wild strawberry for its resemblance of its runners and leaves to domestic strawberries). These tiny plants are now found throughout the burn, threading through piles of bark and limbs.


Wild dwarf bramble growing over charred bark along the Vista Ridge Trail

Huckleberries also continue their comeback, mostly from the surviving roots of established plants that grew before the fire but also as seedlings. In a few spots, the understory was not completely destroyed, and in these areas huckleberry is responding strongly to the bright conditions with abundant berry production.


Huckleberry seedlings emerging on Vista Ridge


Huckleberry seedlings growing from the base of a burned snag on Vista Ridge


Huckleberries that survived the fire are producing abundant berry crops in the suddenly sunny environment in the Dollar Burn

Though they were among the few understory survivors, the recovery of beargrass has been more gradual than expected. Most plants seem to be growing from roots that survived the fire, though the first big bloom of these survivors (and the seeds they produced) only arrived over the past two years.


Beargrass emerging from surviving roots are just beginning to produce blooms within the burn zone

Clumping grasses have also arrived throughout the burn, as well as the occasional rush in moist, protected pockets.


Rush growing in a moist hollow on Vista Ridge


Clumping grasses are taking root in some of the driest areas of the Dollar Burn

Elderberry is among the few woody understory pioneers to arrive in this stage of the Dollar Burn recovery. These plants are scattered widely, growing in less burned areas, and may also be growing from surviving roots.


This young Elderberry shrub is just getting started in the burn zone in 2016

Conifers are just getting started five years after the Dollar Fire. Almost all of the conifer seedlings at this point in the recovery are Mountain hemlock and Noble fir, the dominant evergreens in Mount Hood’s subalpine forests.

By counting branch tiers, a few young trees as old as four years can be found, but most are one or two year-old seedlings. But if you look closely, there are also many seedlings that have not survived the harsh summers in the burn zone, where there is little shade and the sandy mountain soils are extremely dry by the time rain reappears in the fall.

This is the sorting process at work, where only a few seedlings will survive winter cold, summer heat and competition from understory plants to someday become part of the new forest canopy.


Young Mountain hemlock in the Dollar Burn in 2016


Three-year old Noble Fir in the Dollar Burn in 2016

Though most of the Dollar Fire was an overheated catastrophe for the forest, killing almost everything, there are a few spots where the fire cooled and burned in a “mosaic” pattern, leaving a few surviving trees and much of the understory.

These areas are lush islands of life just five years after the fire, underscoring their importance in the recovery and why cooler mosaic burns can be beneficial to the long-term health of a forest. Pioneer species are much more abundant in heavily burned areas that are immediately adjacent to these surviving patches than in other parts of the burn, as plants quickly spread from these islands of green.


Island of green where the Dollar Lake Fire spared a section of forest that now serves as a nursery for regenerating the burn zone

While the Dollar Burn is recovering at nature’s pace, without human intervention, the Forest Service has given the nearby Gnarl Burn section along Cloud Cap Road a recovery boost by planting conifer seedlings. These trees were planting in 2010, about a year before the Dollar Lake Fire and following commercial removal of burned trees along the historic road.


Planted conifers in the Gnarl Burn along Cloud Cap Road in 2016

Today, these trees are thriving, and the main effect of replanting is the diversity of species, including lodgepole pine, western larch, Western white pine, Englemann Spruce and even whitebark pine at higher elevations. Noble fir and mountain hemlock do not seem to have been part of the replanting, perhaps because these species are the most likely to recover without human intervention.

The Long View?


Hazard tree warning at the Vista Ridge trailhead

Hikers on the north side of Mount Hood will continue to have a front-row seat to the forest recovery in the Dollar Burn. Already, there are some surprising lessons.

First, the main victims of blowdown since the fire have often been the few trees that survived the fire intact. This is because of the sudden exposure of their canopy to winter winds and snow loads, and is a surprising blow to the forest recovery these trees would otherwise be helping to seed the burn zone.


Toppled surviving Noble fir in the burn zone in 2016


A surviving canopy becomes a liability in a burned forest, as surviving trees along Vista Ridge were tipped by winter storms in 2016

The Dollar Burn generally stayed well below timberline (and the Timberline Trail), leaving most of the alpine zone intact. But where the fire did burn into places like Elk Cove, Eden Park and Cairn Basin, we will also have an opportunity to watch how alpine ecosystems react to fire.

Some of Mount Hood’s most ancient forests grow in this zone, and have presumably survived because they are somewhat isolated from lower-elevation forests and often grow in moister conditions where snowpack is greater and summer days are cooler. But the forest could take centuries to recover in these areas, impacting the many species of plants and wildlife that live exclusively at this elevation.


It could take centuries for this high-elevation forest of Mountain hemlock and Whitebark pine on Vista Ridge to recover from the fire

In human terms, it’s hard to see forest fire cycles in perspective, but in the case of the Dollar Burn, we have the benefit of early photographs from the area. Forest surveys show that the Red Hill area on the north edge of the Mount Hood Wilderness burned in the early 1900s, and were barely recovering by the 1950s (see below).


The view from Owl Point in 1952 and 2016 shows the cycle of fire on Mount Hood’s north slope over the past century (top photo courtesy Hood River History Museum)

[Click here for a larger version]

Today, the forest in this northern edge of the wilderness has substantially recovered after a century of regrowth, and now the view is reversed: the silvery ghost forests of the Dollar Fire now mark the once-green slopes of Mount Hood as viewed from Owl Point, while green forests and beargrass meadows cover the former Red Hill burn in the foreground.


Looking down on the Dollar Burn and Owl Point in the distance from the Timberline Trail in 2016

So far, so good, but the larger question in an era of climate change is whether our forests will continue to recover from catastrophic fire – or logging – in the way that we have always assumed they will.

As the recovery unfolds in the Dollar Lake, Gnarl and Blue Ridge burns on Mount Hood we’ll learn how resilient our forests really are, and hopefully make better decisions in protecting them for the benefit of future generations.

WyEast Roundup!

February 26, 2016

Lots going on as we enter 2016 in WyEast country, so this article is a bit of a roundup, beginning with yet another commemorative nod from our federal government in the form of…

Columbia River Gorge Priority Mail Express Stamp!


On December 30, 2015 the U.S. Postal Service released another stamp celebrating the Columbia River Gorge, joining the 1992 USPS postcard of the same, classic scene of Crown Point as viewed from Chanticleer Point (Women’s Forum Park).


While the 1992 commemorative card was an affordable $0.19, the new Gorge stamp is a hefty $22.95, making for a steep addition to stamp collections! This new Priority Mail Express stamp is available in panes of 10 (for a mere $229.50!), and in the words of the Postal Service, the new stamp “celebrates the grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge” with the following:

Approximately 80 miles long and up to 4,000 ft. deep, the gorge runs along the Columbia River to form part of the border between Oregon and Washington. The stamp art captures the beauty of the Columbia River as it winds its way through the steep cliffs of the Cascade Mountain Range. The historic Vista House sitting atop Crown Point and overlooking the river 725 ft. below shimmers in the golden light of the setting sun.

Illustrator Dan Cosgrove of Chicago worked under the direction of Phil Jordan of Falls Church, VA, to create the stamp image.

The artists captured a faithful rendering of the scene, but I can’t help but wonder why a local illustrator wasn’t selected? After all, the Portland region is home to so many, including Paul A. Lanquist (PAL), the creative force behind dozens of “new retro” posters of Pacific Northwest scenes, like this view of Vista House:

Courtesy: Discover the Northwest

Courtesy: Discover the Northwest

So, save your money on that spendy USPS stamp and consider supporting a Northwest artist, instead. You can find Paul Lanquist’s posters at Discover the Northwest and many other outlets.

Still Creek Trails

As part of a recent series of articles on the Mirror Lake backcountry and Wind Creek Basin, I proposed the following concept for eventually expanding trails in this pocket wilderness:


(click here for large map)

After posting these articles, I happened to be researching the area for a related topic and was surprised to find many of my “proposed” trails on early maps. I’m going to chalk that up as “imitation being the sincerest form of flattery” as I’m sure I’ve studied these maps before, and must have noticed these earlier trails! Or so it would seem?

Nonetheless, it was a pleasant (re)surprise to discover that we once had a hefty trail network here, as it helps make the case for bringing more trails in this area to reality someday. Past is prologue! And who knows, maybe some of these old treads still survive?


(click here for large map)

A closer look at the 1937 forest map (above, marked with red arrows) reveals a rim trail that followed the north side of Still Creek valley from Camp Creek to – what’s that? – a trail between Still Creek and Mirror Lake!

These old trails show up on a more “official” 1939 forest map (below), with added detail showing the connector to Still Creek continuing south to (what still exists today as) the Eureka Peak trail. This explains what has always been an odd trail fragment at Eureka Peak and raises the intriguing question of whether the segment north of Still Creek to Wind Lake and beyond still exists?


(click here for large map)

These old routes persist on forest maps dating into the late 1940s, when the commercial logging assault on our forests began wiping out hundreds of miles of old trails (below).


(click here for large map)

But Mirror Lake, the Wind Creek Basin and Still Creek valley were still recovering from the catastrophic Sherar Burn when the logging bonanza took off in the mid-1900s, and were mostly spared from clear cutting and logging roads. That not only gave today’s pocket wilderness, but it also bodes well for traces of these old trails to still survive – and someday be rediscovered and restored, perhaps?

Eliot Crossing Update

Lots of news on the Eliot Crossing proposal, first described in this WyEast Blog article from 2014. As reported earlier, the Forest Service is moving a trail project forward this year that will finally restore the missing section of the Timberline Trail at the Eliot Branch crossing.

The following map originally appeared in this blog, but later became a Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) map for the purpose of the Eliot Crossing project, and now is being shared with the Forest Service, as well:


(click here for large map)

In January, Claire Pitner, Forest Service project manager for the new trail at the Hood River Ranger District, sent this good news to local non-profits involved in the project:

“I wanted to let you know that the environmental analysis for the Eliot Reroute was signed yesterday. Furthermore, earlier this week we received word that the Regional Office is providing funding to complete the project. Much of the work will be done using a contractor with volunteer assistance as well.

“We are working on finalizing the contract package in hopes of having a contractor long before we are able to access and do work at the site. I’m looking forward to working with TrailKeepers to get some good work done this summer!”

By early February, the local media picked up on the story with (surprise!) mentions of the WyEast Blog in The Oregonian and Willamette Week – a nice plug for the blog and the Eliot Crossing project!

In early March, the TKO board will be meeting with the Forest Service and several other non-profit organizations to begin planning volunteer activities related to the project. It should be a fun, family-friendly opportunity for volunteers to be part of the project, and I’ll post updates on the project as more details become available.

LG TV Mystery Mountain Ad

I’ll end the roundup on a whimsical note, courtesy LG, the electronics giant. I spotted the following print ad over the holidays and something about it looked too familiar – as it should have. This is our very own Trillium Lake…

Do not attempt to adjust your television…

Do not attempt to adjust your television…

…except it isn’t, unless you’re looking in the rear-view mirror of your kayak (or canoe). A closer look at the mountain (below) shows all the major features of WyEast reversed, with a misplaced White River glacier flowing down the southwest slope of the mountain (imagine the mayhem in Rhododendron!), and poor Illumination Rock and Mississippi Head rudely moved to the east side of the mountain:

This looks vaguely familiar…

This looks vaguely familiar…

But the really goofy part of this ad is the appearance of what seems to be an Italian (Burano?) or perhaps Icelandic fishing village teleported to the Oregon Cascades:

Preview of a future Forest Service concession..?

Preview of a future Forest Service concession..?

As always, it’s good to see our mountain (and Gorge) making regular appearances in print media from around the world, even if the graphic artists can’t resist making a few improvements. Even with the artistic tinkering, these ads underscore the world-class nature of these amazing places… and their national park-worthiness, of course!

Good News from the Hood River RD!

February 16, 2015
The Eliot Branch and Mount Hood

The Eliot Branch and Mount Hood

A few weeks ago the Forest Service contacted me about a recent article posted on this blog, It’s Time to Fix the Eliot Crossing!

The article proposed some simple solutions for restoring a washed-out section of the Timberline Trail at the Eliot Branch, which has been offically closed for nearly a decade, and is quite dangerous for those who choose to ignore the closure signs.

The article critiqued Forest Service inaction on the problem, and especially the agency obsession with the “million dollar bridge” solution of somehow installing a supension bridge over the disintegrating canyon of the Eliot Branch. This stream is the unruly outflow from the Mount Hood’s Eliot Glacier, largest of the mountain’s glaciers.

Crossing the Eliot Branch in better days on the old footbridge

Crossing the Eliot Branch in better days on the old footbridge

The proposed susppension bridge would have been prohibitively expensive, and had little chance of ever being funded. Worse, any bridge built here stands a very good chance of being destroyed: the steady retreat of the Eliot Glacier will continue to unravel the canyon below for the foreseeable future as the Eliot Branch carves into new ground once covered by glacial ice.

Because of the critical nature of the article, I expected some grief from the Forest Service. Instead, I learned the Hood River Ranger District has now scrapped its “million dollar bridge” solution and is pursuing a simpler downstream crossing, very similar to what was proposed in the blog article. That’s great news!

The Hood River District staff invited me to meet with them and have a look at their new proposal, so I sat down with one of their Forest Service planners in late December to hear the details. The following are highlights from that conversation.

While they are still in the very early stages of laying out a route, the following map shows the general corridor (in green) the Forest Service has scouted for a “low trail” solution, compared to the new trail concept proposed in the earlier blog article (dashed red):


(Click here for a larger version)

The conceptual Forest Service route would descend the east wall of the Eliot Branch canyon in a series of short switchbacks, just upstream from the ravine where the route was proposed in the blog article.

Once across the Eliot Branch, the Forest Service route would traverse along the ridge that forms the west wall of the canyon, while the route proposed in the blog article followed a tributary stream up a ravine that leads to the Timberline Trail. The Forest Service route is a bit shorter, at 1.2 miles, but follows the same “keep it simple” principles laid out in the blog article.

The Eliot Branch in the vicinity of the proposed crossing (photo © Tim Burke)

The Eliot Branch in the vicinity of the proposed crossing (photo © Tim Burke)

Here’s the best news: the Forest Service hopes to have the new trail under construction in 1-2 years, and have already begun scouting possible alignments. Even better, they hope to involve volunteers in some aspect of the construction, and have reached out to Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) to begin that conversation (note: the author is also active in TKO).

This has been a long time coming, and kudos are in order for the Hood River Ranger District for getting this project unstuck — and especially for new staff at the Hood River office who have been instrumental in putting the “million dollar bridge” fiasco behind us. While much more work lies ahead for this project to become a reality, it’s a promising change of direction and a new level of commitment from Forest Service to finally fix this problem.

I’ll post updates on the project here over the next couple of years as the details come into view, of course!

A Mea Culpa is in Order…

When I arrived at the Hood River Ranger District last December for the Timberline Trail meeting, I was surprised to see that the visitor facilities had been dramatically upgraded! This was to my chagrin, as I had lamented the need to do so in this blog article in early 2014. It turns out that the finishing touches to the remodeled Hood River offices were being made at about the time I posted those comments here, so a mea culpa is in order!

Like me, you probably won’t notice the changes to the Hood River Ranger Station when driving by on the Mount Hood Loop Highway, as the public face of the building has been redesigned to face south, not toward the highway to the east. In fact, the building looks much the same from the highway to the casual eye — though an addition to the main building, new signage and an outbuilding have been constructed in what was once a very large parking lot (see below).

Before and after highway views of the ranger station

Before and after highway views of the ranger station

Before and after views of the ranger station

Before and after views of the ranger station

The new orientation makes perfect sense when you stand in front of the building, however. A picturesque view of Mount Hood rising above orchards fills the scene — a view echoed and embraced by the pyramid-shaped wall of windows that define the new visitor center.

Mount Hood fills the southern horizon

Mount Hood fills the southern horizon

The revamped building exterior has ADA-compliant parking and ramps, a small plaza, updated informational sign kiosk, carved welcome sign, bike rack and a new pit toilet. The latter is a much-needed addition that is less elegant than the flush toilets provided at the new Zigzag Ranger Station, but still a nice step forward.

This carved sign welcomes visitors to the new facility

This carved sign welcomes visitors to the new facility

The new visitors center is ADA accessible

The new visitors center is ADA accessible

Once inside the new visitors center, you will find a main desk staffed by a Forest Service ranger, and a nice mix of interpretive displays, ranging from historical artifacts to a collection of mounted wildlife specimens found in the Mount Hood region. The center also has a very good selection of field guides and maps for sale, in addition to many free USFS informational materials.

A nice touch inside the building is a terrestrial telescope mounted on a tripod in front of one of the large picture windows, allowing visitors to take a closer look at the mountain that looms above the ranger station.

Interior panorama of the visitors center (note telescope on the left)

Interior panorama of the visitors center (note telescope on the left)

Rangers staff the new front desk at the visitors center

Rangers staff the new front desk at the visitors center

Watch out… bears lurk behind posts in the new facility!

Watch out… bears lurk behind posts in the new facility!

The wildlife specimens will be fun and informative for families visiting the center, as kids are universally drawn to animal displays. Each mounted display has a detailed info card to help parents become instant experts on the different species represented, or for older kids (and adults) to simply browse and learn from.

Owls on display at the front desk

Owls on display at the front desk

Guard raccoon is on duty 24/7…

Guard raccoon is on duty 24/7…

A particularly menacing bobcat is on display!

A particularly menacing bobcat is on display!

This Pine Marten is in charge of the Bull Trout bumper stickers…

This Pine Marten is in charge of the Bull Trout bumper stickers…

Black bear roaming near the front desk

Black bear roaming near the front desk

The bookstore is located at the west end of the visitor center and creatively designed as a rolling, self-contained portable display. The book offerings are excellent, including many of the most popular regional hiking, climbing, skiing and snowshoeing guides, plus field guides to area flora, fauna and history. Posters and coffee-table books celebrating Mount Hood are also featured.

The rolling bookstore has an excellent cross-section of materials

The rolling bookstore has an excellent cross-section of materials

The map offerings in the rolling bookstore are also excellent, including USFS maps for most National Forests in Oregon and Washington, and official Forest Service maps for wilderness areas in the more immediate Mount Hood region.

The map selection also includes several independently published trail and ski maps, including the exceptional National Geographic Trails Illustrated series for Mount Hood and the Gorge and maps for the Pacific Crest Trail. There are even Green Trails topographic maps for the Mount Hood region (below).

Green Trails topographic maps for sale

Green Trails topographic maps for sale

Historical interpretation is somewhat more limited at the new center, anchored by a fine carved sign (presumably Works Progress Administration or Civilian Conservation Corps?) that once stood at the Cloud Cap junction on the old loop highway. The impressive old sign is flanked with captioned photos of north side history on the mountain.

History displays at the west end of the new facility

History displays at the west end of the new facility

Historic Tilly Jane sign anchoring the history displays

Historic Tilly Jane sign anchoring the history displays

A mounted poster from the Mount Hood Scenic Byway series provides a bit more history of the Cloud Cap Inn and the early climbing history of the north side.

Hopefully, new displays will be added over time to explore more of the rich history of the upper Hood River Valley and north side of Mount Hood: the long Native American history in the area, settlement of the upper Hood River Valley in the 1800s, early Forest Service history on Mount Hood and completion of the Mount Hood Loop Highway in the 1920s are just some of the stories that deserve to be told here.

Mount Hood Scenic Byway history poster

Mount Hood Scenic Byway history poster

There are still some gaps in the visitor experience at the revamped ranger station that could use some attention. First, heavy landscaping hides the Ranger Station from southbound highway traffic (which is how most visitors travel to the mountain), and the signage along the highway is easy to miss. Adding a simple “Visitors Center” sign to the existing entrance marker would be helpful.

Second, the visitor center hours posted at the door differ from what appears on the official Mount Hood Forest website. At least two variations appear on the website, depending where Google takes you: the main website listing shows a M-F schedule, while the dedicated Hood River Ranger District page includes Saturdays in the daily schedule.

The new center elegantly packs a lot into a modest space

The new center elegantly packs a lot into a modest space

The signs at the main entrance to the Ranger Station split the difference, showing M-F hours, but extending to include Saturdays from Memorial Day through Labor Day. In all of these variations, the actual hours are the same: from 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM, closed on all federal holidays.

Obviously, Saturday operating hours are at a premium, both for the Forest Service in covering their expense of keeping the building open, but also for visitors, who are more likely to be traveling here on weekends than weekdays.

Hopefully, the agency can someday find a way to keep the visitors center part of the Ranger Station open on Saturdays (and even Sundays?) year-round. Weekends are undeniably the busiest visitor time on the mountain, and Mount Hood is busy year-round.

Closed mornings, evenings and weekends..?

Closed mornings, evenings and weekends..?

Finally, the pit toilets located outside the new visitor center are currently locked when the visitors center is closed — an unwelcome and unfortunate surprise for travelers who stop early or late in the day, or on weekends.

In the long term, a better way to address the mismatch between federal government hours and those when the public is most likely to be recreating (weekends and holidays) would be to expand the outside informational and interpretive displays to better serve visitors when the main building is closed. This could even include locating interpretive displays some near the pit toilets, and leaving them unlocked on weekends and holidays.

Despite these rough edges, the new visitor center really shines for the Hood River Ranger District. The new facility should greatly enhance the visitor experience for those seeing the area for the first time.

But even if you’re a seasoned Mount Hood hiker, the new center deserves a stop on your next trip through the area. Plan for 20-30 minutes to explore the displays and browse the books and maps.

It’s Time to Fix the Eliot Crossing!

October 28, 2014
Eliot Branch and Mount Hood before the 2006 washout

Eliot Branch and Mount Hood before the 2006 washout

Another hiking season has passed, marking eight long, inexcusable years since an intense November storm washed out the Timberline National Historic Trail near Cloud Cap in 2006.

Since then, countless hikers from around the world have arrived at this world-class destination only to find cryptic temporary notices stapled to trailhead signs announcing that the segment of the trail crossing the Eliot Branch has been closed indefinitely by the U.S. Forest Service.

Hikers on the seasonal bridge over the Eliot Branch that was in place from the mid-1990s until 2006

Hikers on the seasonal bridge over the Eliot Branch that was in place from the mid-1990s until 2006

Most round-the-mountain hikers start at Timberline Lodge and hike clockwise, and therefore often learn of the Eliot Branch closure halfway through their 40-mile trek. Understandably, many of these hikers began working their way across the deeply eroded canyon in the years following the closure. Today hundreds of hikers each hear ignore the Forest Service notices and follow sketchy boot paths across the Eliot Branch to complete the Timberline Trail circuit.

Why the delay in repairing the trail at the Eliot Branch? The Forest Service claims lack of funding, suggesting in 2010 that “studies were underway” for a million dollar suspension bridge at the current crossing location. Such a project would “require an appropriation by Congress” to fund, according to a Forest Service district ranger at the time.

A second, more practical option under consideration was a significant reroute of the Timberline Trail at the Eliot Branch, which according to the Forest Service at the time, would require “constructing 1.5 miles of new trail to a lower crossing of the creek, then 1.5 miles back up to the existing trail”.

Eight years have passed since the 2006 washout, and four since the Forest Service last gave any indication of working toward a solution for the Timberline Trail. Since then, neither option proposed in 2010 for restoring the crossing has materialized. Instead, Oregon’s premier hiking trail remains an embarrassment, and a testament to the frustrating inability of the Forest Service to set agency priorities that match those of the public they serve.

These seasonable bridge footings were bolted to a pair of huge boulders that were swept away in the 2006 washout

These seasonable bridge footings were bolted to a pair of huge boulders that were swept away in the 2006 washout

The 2006 flood event wasn’t the first time the Eliot Crossing had washed out in recent years. In the mid-1990s, a similar washout erased an earlier crossing that had been in place since the Timberline Trail was constructed in the 1930s. The Forest Service responded to the first washout by appropriating sections of a pair of climber’s trails that ascend moraines on both sides of the Eliot Canyon, and constructing a new crossing between the two trails, above the original crossing.

This new crossing (pictured above) lasted only a few years, until the 2006 storm further deepened the Eliot Branch canyon, this time much more substantially. The new crossing featured a pair of bridge anchors bolted to boulders that straddled the Eliot Branch, and a seasonal bridge that could be placed on the anchors with a helicopter, similar to the Sandy River bridge near Ramona Falls.

The sorry state of the "closed" Eliot Branch crossing today: a sketchy scramble up a crumbling 300 foot slope, aided by a rope left by hikers

The sorry state of the “closed” Eliot Branch crossing today: a sketchy scramble up a crumbling 300 foot slope, aided by a rope left by hikers

Removable, seasonal bridges are an excellent solution to the dilemma of keeping the Timberline Trail open in an era when retreating glaciers and increasingly erratic weather promises to continue deepening all of Mount Hood’s newly exposed glacial valleys.

This point was underscored earlier this year when an unusually strong summer storm washed out the seasonal Sandy River crossing. While one hiker was tragically killed in the incident, dozens were able to cross to safety because of the seasonal bridge.

For this reason, studying elaborate permanent solutions, such as the “million dollar” suspension bridge, are an exercise in futility. Whole sections of the Eliot Branch canyon have collapsed into the stream over the past two decades during heavy flooding, and there is no reason to assume that this pattern won’t continue to rearrange the landscape for decades to come.

This article proposes a more modest and immediate fix that mirrors the re-route option once considered by the Forest Service. This is a project that could have been constructed shortly after the 2006 floods with minimal cost and an excellent ability to adapt to future flood events.

Lessons from Up North

Wonderland Trail bridge across the Nisqually River in Mount Rainier National Park (Wikimedia)

Wonderland Trail bridge across the Nisqually River in Mount Rainier National Park (Wikimedia)

The Eliot Branch crossing is a perfect example of how the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service differ in their budget priorities and working relationships with volunteers. It’s instructive to look at how the Park Service responded to the same 2006 storms and flooding that impacted Mount Rainier National Park.

The damage to the 92-mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier was exponentially worse than anything on Mount Hood. This is largely because several of Mount Rainier’s 26 glaciers dwarf even the Eliot Glacier, Mount Hood’s largest, and the Wonderland Trail has three times the glacial stream crossings of the Timberline Trail.

The Wonderland Trail not only crosses many more glacial streams in its circuit around Mount Rainier, it also has bridges across most of them, where most of Mount Hood’s glacial streams have no bridges (requiring hikers to ford most of the glacial streams). So, not only did the Park Service have a trail more than twice as long to restore, but also many times the number of bridges to repair along the Wonderland Trail.

Despite the much greater challenge, the Park Service managed very little disruption for hikers. The Wonderland Trail uses a reservation system, and the Park Service took the precautionary step of not accepting reservations for the 2007 hiking season, in light of the scope of damage to many trail sections and crossings. Yet, the Wonderland Trail was reopened to hikers on August 3, 2007, less than a year after the 2006 floods!

The National Park Service continually maintains dozens of wilderness bridges on the 92-mile long Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, despite much worse washouts and much more difficult crossings than anything found on Mount Hood (Wikimedia)

The National Park Service continually maintains dozens of wilderness bridges on the 92-mile long Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, despite much worse washouts and much more difficult crossings than anything found on Mount Hood (Wikimedia)

The rapid repairs to the Wonderland Trail happened because re-opening the trail was a top priority for the Mount Rainier National Park. To manage this feat, the staff enlisted some 1,700 volunteers in the effort, with tens of thousands of volunteer labor from organizations like the he Washington Conservation Corps and Student Conservation Association.

The proposal described in this article for the Eliot Branch could easily have been completed in 2007, too, had restoring the trail been a priority for the Forest Service, and especially if volunteer labor had been tapped from any number of organizations involved in trail work in Oregon. Instead, the repairs have waited eight years, with no end in sight.

It’s time to finally fix the Timberline Trail to ensure the safety of hikers determined to make the crossing, and to end the embarrassment of visitors to our region from around the world experiencing this national treasure in such a shameful state of disrepair.

A Simple and Affordable Solution!


[click to see a large version]

The simplest solution to finally restoring the Eliot Branch crossing is to go lower and low-tech. Instead of waiting for a dubious “million dollar” suspension bridge to be funded, a better option would be a new crossing downstream with a simple, seasonal plank bridge.

Why go low? Mostly because the durable bedrock layers that form Stranahan Falls (located about a mile downstream from the current crossing) have also checked down-cutting of the canyon in that stretch by the Eliot Branch. Where the upper canyon has been carved some 150 feet deeper since the 1990s, the lower canyon section, just above Stranahan falls, shows much less erosion during this period.

As shown on the proposal map (above), this new section of the Timberline Trail would depart from Cloud Cap Saddle trailhead, initially following a shallow ravine to the rim of the Eliot Branch canyon. The new trail would then switchback down the east wall of the canyon, reaching the new crossing (shown below) about 0.5 miles from the start of the new trail.


[click to see a large version]

The new, lower stream crossing would be similar to most other glacial fords on the Timberline Trail, except that a bridge is proposed here (as they should be at all glacial crossings on Mount Hood – watch for a future article on that topic!).

This is in part because a bridge has traditionally been provided at this crossing, but also because the crossing location is very close to the Cloud Cap Saddle trailhead, and located at the wilderness boundary, so it would present fewer obstacles to build and maintain. Until the Eliot Branch settles down, however (and that could decades from now – or never), it makes sense to install a season bridge similar to that used on the Sandy River.

From the proposed lower crossing of the Eliot Branch, the new trail would traverse along a side stream that enters the main canyon from the west, climbing approximately 0.8 miles to the resumption of the existing Timberline Trail.


[click to see a large version]

The 600-foot elevation loss (and subsequent gain) for this proposed new alignment of the Timberline Trail would be comparable to what was already required for the old, upper crossing, though the overall mileage of the new route would be slightly longer (by about 0.3 miles). However, the length of the proposed new trail would be less than half of what the Forest Service was considering for a lower crossing option in 2010.

The key to the new crossing location is its proximity to Stranahan Falls, and the massive band of andesite bedrock that not only forms the falls, but also prevents further down-cutting in the area above the falls. As shown the illustrations (above and below), this location is the one spot in the upper reaches of the Eliot Branch canyon that has a reasonable chance of stabilizing in the near term.


[click to see a large version]

As an aside, the area near the brink of Stranahan Falls is arguably the most stable in terms of down cutting, with the streambed now scoured to bedrock for some distance above the falls. But a crossing here would not only add to the elevation loss/gain and distance for the new trail, it would also require some challenging trail construction in the very steep and complex terrain that surrounds the top of the falls.

There are also additional waterfalls to negotiate in the area immediately above Stranahan Falls, including a 25-foot waterslide just above the main falls and a 35″ upper falls just upstream from the waterslide. While it would surely be a spectacular location for a trail crossing, it would also very difficult to build and maintain over time.

A crossing at Stranahan Falls would also encourage more off-trail exploring of the falls area than is desirable, both for public safety and environmental concerns. So, based on these considerations, the crossing location proposed in this article seems to be the best spot for ensuring long-term stability and reasonably straightforward design and construction.

What will it Take?

Sadly, this fine bridge over Clark Creek is among the few surviving on Mount Hood, and the only surviving permanent crossing on a glacial stream.

Sadly, this fine bridge over Clark Creek is among the few surviving on Mount Hood, and the only surviving permanent crossing on a glacial stream.

What would it take to actually build this simple solution for reconnecting the Timberline Trail? Not as much as we’ve been led to believe by the Forest Service. Here’s how the proposal described in this article could be built right away, in 2015:

The total length of the proposed new Timberline Trail section is approximately 1.3 miles, with the first (and most rugged) half mile occurring outside the Mount Hood Wilderness boundary. This would allow for mechanized equipment to be used on that section of new trail, while only hand tools could be used to construct the sections west of the Eliot Branch, inside the wilderness.

These young hikers are experiencing a tainted rite of passage with the long and often treacherous detour required to complete the Timberline Trail (Photo courtesy Christopher Alley)

These young hikers are experiencing a tainted rite of passage with the long and often treacherous detour required to complete the Timberline Trail (Photo courtesy Christopher Alley)

One Forest Service source (the USFS Trails Unlimited enterprise program) estimates the cost of building new trails to be between $2,500 to $12,000 per mile. That’s a big range, to be sure. So for the purpose of this article, I used the top of that range to put the cost of actually constructing the proposed trail at just over $15,000, given that the trail would involve both wilderness construction and steep terrain.

Other costs would include environmental analysis (if needed – this proposal may qualify as a categorical exception), design and surveying. But even if these administrative and technical costs were to triple the cost of the overall project, restoring the Timberline Trail along this alignment might still be possible for well under $100,000, using Forest Service cost estimates. That is a relatively manageable amount that could reasonably be funded from an annual Mount Hood National Forest operating budget of more than $20 million.

So, what’s the delay? First, it’s hard to believe the Forest Service hasn’t considered an inexpensive option like the one proposed here. Yet, no such project has been formally proposed by the agency.

It’s also possible that the Forest Service is still fixated on the more dramatic, elaborate fix described by forest officials in 2010. Such projects are known to bring political favor back at the USFS headquarters in Washington D.C. for their “wow factor” over more mundane projects, after all. Unfortunately, such a project does not appear in the Forest Service schedule of proposed actions (SOPA) where a proposal of that scale would almost surely have to be listed.

This is the frustrating map that still greets Timberline Trail hikers on the Mount Hood National Forest website after eight years

This is the frustrating map that still greets Timberline Trail hikers on the Mount Hood National Forest website after eight years

[click here for a large version]

A third possibility is that the Forest Service is holding the trail hostage in protest to budget cuts that have affected most federal agencies over the past several years. While this might seem far-fetched, consider that Oregon Congressmen Earl Blumenauer and Greg Walden made a much-publicized 4-day trek around the Timberline Trail in July 2005 to highlight issues facing the mountain, just one year before the Eliot Crossing washed out.

Whatever the reason, fixing the Timberline Trail doesn’t seem to be a real priority for the Forest Service. Why else would the most important trail in the Mount Hood National Forest have languished for the past eight years? In that time, the agency has spent tens of millions on other forest projects.

The sad saga of the Timberline Trail closer at the Eliot Branch is also another reminder of just how different the situation at Mount Hood might be if it were under National Park management… which is the much better solution in the long term.

Special thanks to Tim Burke and Melinda Muckenthaler for use of your photos – and for some of the most amazing waterfall exploring anyone has ever done on Mount Hood!

The Newton Clark Moraine

November 26, 2011

Mount Hood and the Newton Clark Moraine from Bennett Pass Road

Tucked on the remote east shoulder of Mount Hood is the Newton Clark Moraine, the largest glacial formation on the mountain, and one of its most prominent features. Yet this huge, snaking ridge remains one of Mount Hood’s least known and most mysterious landmarks.

At over three miles in length, and rising as much as a thousand feet above the glacial torrents that flow along both flanks, the Newton Clark Moraine easily dwarfs the more famous moraines along the nearby Eliot Glacier.

East Face Detail with Newton Clark Moraine

How big is it? The Newton Clark Moraine contains roughly 600 million cubic yards of debris, ranging from fine gravels and glacial till to house-sized boulders. This translates to 950 million tons of material, which in human terms, means it would take 73 million dump truck loads to haul it away.

Backcountry skiers often call the moraine “Pea Gravel Ridge”, which is a poor choice of words, as pea gravel is something you would expect in tumbled river rock. The Newton Clark Moraine is just the opposite: a jumble of relatively young volcanic debris, some of it located where it fell in Mount Hood’s eruptive past, some of it moved here by the colossal advance of the Newton Clark Glacier during the last ice age.

Newton Clark Moraine

As a result, the rocks making up the moraine are sharp and raw, not rounded, and the debris is largely unsorted. Giant boulders perch precariously atop loose rubble, making the moraine one of the most unstable places on the mountain.

In recent years, erosion on Mount Hood has been accelerating with climate change. Sections of the Newton Clark Moraine are regularly collapsing into Newton and Clark creeks, creating massive debris flows that have repeatedly washed out Highway 35, below.

2006 Newton Creek Washout on Highway 35 (USFS)

Today, an ambitious Federal Highway Administration project is underway to rebuild and — supposedly — prevent future washouts on Highway 35 at Newton Creek and the White River. But given those 73 million dump truck loads of debris located upstream on Newton Creek, it’s likely that nature has different plans for the area as climate change continues to destabilize the landscape.

Something a Little Different

Most glacial moraines on Mount Hood are lateral moraines, formed along the flanks of glaciers, or terminal moraines formed at the end of a glacier. The Newton Clark Moraine is different: it is a medial moraine, meaning that it formed between two rivers of ice.


As shown in this schematic (above), medial moraines are more common in places like Alaska or Chile, where much larger glaciers flow for miles, like rivers. When these glaciers merge, a medial moraine is often created, marked by the characteristic stripe of rock that traces the border between the combined streams of ice.

At the surface of a glacier, only the top of a medial moraine is visible. Only upon a glacier retreating can the full size of a medial moraine be appreciated. In this way, the height of the Newton Clark Moraine is a reasonable estimate of the height (or depth) of the ancestral Newton Clark Glacier during the most recent ice age advance — the crest of the moraine approximates the depth of the former glacier.

The Newton Clark Prow

The Newton Clark Moraine is even more unique in that the two bodies of ice that formed the moraine flowed from the same glacier. Like the modern Newton Clark Glacier, the much larger ice age ancestor also began as a single, wide body of ice on Mount Hood’s east flank, but then split as it flowed around the massive rocky prow that now marks the terminus to the glacier.

The outcrop is typical of the stratovolcanoes that make up the high peaks of the Cascades. Stratovolcanoes are formed like a layer cake, with alternating flows of tough, erosion-resistant magma and loose ash and debris deposits. The Newton Clark Prow is a hard layer of magma in the “cake” that is Mount Hood, with looser layers of volcanic ash and debris piled above and below.

Newton Clark Prow detail from Gnarl Ridge

In fact, without this broad rib of volcanic rock to shore up its eastern side, the very summit of Mount Hood might well have been further eroded during the series of glacial advances that have excavated the peak.

Similar rocky outcrops appear elsewhere on the mountain, forming Mississippi Head, Yocum Ridge, Barrett Spur and the Langille Crags. Hikers visiting Gnarl Ridge know the Newton Clark Prow from the many waterfalls formed by glacial runoff cascading over its cliffs.

(Click here for a larger version)

The much softer and less consolidated rock below the prow made it easy for the ice age ancestor of the Newton Clark to scour away the mountain. This action created the huge alpine canyons that Clark and Newton creeks flow through today, as well as the enormous U-shaped valley of the East Fork Hood River.

A Glimpse into the Ice Age

While today’s Newton Clark Glacier flows a little over a mile down the east face of the mountain, its giant ice age ancestor once flowed more than 12 miles down the East Fork valley (today’s Highway 35 route), nearly to the junction of today’s Cooper Spur road. At its peak, the ancestral glacier was more than 1,200 feet deep as it flowed down the valley.

If you were to walk along the crest of the Newton Clark Moraine at that time (as suggested in the illustration, below), you would have likely been able to walk directly across the ice to Gnarl Ridge or today’s Meadows lifts, as the Clark and Newton Creek valleys were filled to the rim with rivers of ice.

Ancestral Newton Clark Glacier Extent

(Click here for a larger version)

This most recent ice age is known to scientists as the Fraser Glaciation, and extended from about 30,000 years ago until about 10,000 years ago. At its peak, the zone of perpetual snow was as low as 3,400 feet, though probably closer to 4,000 feet in the area east of Mount Hood.

This means the deflation zone — the point in its path when a glacier is melting ice more quickly than snowfall can replace — was probably somewhere near the modern-day Clark Creek Sno-Park, or possibly as low as the Gumjuwac Trailhead, where today’s Highway 35 crosses the East Fork.

Below this point, the ancestral glacier would have changed character, from a white jumble of cascading ice to one covered in rocky debris, yet still flowing toward its terminus at roughly at modern-day confluence of the East Fork with Polallie Creek (the map below shows a very generalized estimate of the ancestral glacier)

Geologists believe the Fraser-era glacial advances followed the path of earlier glaciers in their flow patterns. With the Newton-Clark glacier, scientists have found traces of at least two previous glacial advances from even more ancient glacial periods that extended far down the East Fork Valley prior to the Fraser Glaciation. This helps explain the magnitude of the glacial features in the East Fork valley, having been repeatedly carved into an enormous U-shaped trough by rivers of ice over the millennia.

Ancestral Newton Clark Glacier extending down the East Fork valley

(Click here for a larger version)

The timing of the Fraser Glaciation is even more fascinating, as it coincides with the arrival of the first humans in the Americas. It was during this time — at least 15,000 years ago, and likely much earlier — that the first nomadic people crossed the Bering Straight and moved down the Pacific Coast.

Does this mean that the earliest humans in the region might have camped at the base of Mount Hood’s enormous ice age glaciers, perhaps hunting for summer game along the outflow streams? No evidence exists to show just how far humans pushed into Mount Hood’s prehistoric valleys, but scientists now believe people have lived along the Columbia River for at least 10,000 years, and the oral histories of some tribes in the region are also believed to extend back to that time.

How to See It

The best way to see and appreciate the Newton Clark Moraine is along the Timberline Trail where it follows Gnarl Ridge. This route offers a wide-open view across Newton Canyon to the moraine. You can also see the active geology at the headwaters of Newton Creek, where the slopes of the moraine continue to change every winter. On a breezy day, you might also notice sulfur fumes blowing over the summit from the crater — a reminder that Mount Hood is still very much a living volcano today.

Mount Hood and the Newton Clark Moraine (on the left) from Gnarl Ridge

You can follow a detailed hike description to Gnarl Ridge from the Portland Hikers Field Guide at the following link:

Portland Hikers Field Guide: Gnarl Ridge Hike

Another way to see the moraine is from rustic Bennett Pass Road. In summer, you can walk or bike along the old road from Bennett Pass, and there are several viewpoints across the East Fork valley to the headwaters and the Newton Clark Moraine. In winter, you can park as the Bennett Pass Sno-Park and ski or snowshoe to one of the viewpoints — a popular and scenic option.

The most adventurous way to visit is to simply hike the crest of the moraine, itself. This trip is only for the most fit and experienced hikers, as the final segment is off-trail, climbing high above the Timberline Trail. The reward is not only close-up look at the mountain from atop the moraine, but also a rare look at a series of spectacular waterfalls that can only be seen from this vantage point.

Whatever option you choose, you’ll have unique glimpse into Mount Hood’s past — and possibly its future — through one of the mountain’s most unusual geologic features.

White River Buried Forest

September 18, 2011

The summer of 2011 will be remembered as the year of the Dollar Lake Fire in the Mount Hood area, as much of the north side is still smoldering from a lightning-caused wildfire that ignited on August 26. Though a calamity to those who loved the verdant forests on Mount Hood’s northern slopes, the fire is a blip on the screen when compared to the many explosive events that have rearranged the mountain’s forests and topography over the millennia.

Among the most recent and fascinating of these events are the Old Maid eruptions. These explosions knocked over entire forests on the mountain’s south side like matchsticks, burying them under a deep layer of ash and volcanic debris. This article describes the Old Maid events, and how to see traces of their aftermath today.

The Old Maid Eruptions

While most tourists at Timberline Lodge on a given day are blissfully unaware that Mount Hood is living volcano, the occasional, heady odor of sulfur fumes blowing down from the crater are a reminder the “quiet” spell we are enjoying is only temporary.

[click here for a larger version]

In geologic terms, the Old Maid eruptions are incredibly recent, finally winding down in our recorded history of the early 1800s. The events are named for Old Maid Flats, the debris plain created by the eruptions in the Sandy River canyon, though the impact on the mountain was much broader.

Scientists have determined the Old Maid eruptive period to have occurred within from about 1760 to 1810 A.D. In fact, when Lewis & Clark described the shallow “quicksand” delta of the Sandy River in 1804-05, they were looking at volcanic sediments that had only recently flooded down the river from the active slopes Mount Hood.

The former floor of the White River canyon is visible as a thin layer of oxidized soil, dotted with mummified trees.

The scientific accuracy of these dates is made possible by thousands of mummified trees swept over by the Old Maid debris flows, and later exposed by streams cutting into the sediments. The White River buried forest is one of the more prominent locations where these flattened forests and the former valley floor can plainly be seen.

The Old Maid eruptions originated in the modern crater of Mount Hood, where sulfur fumes still rise from the vents known as the Devils Kitchen. The massive, 800-foot volcanic dome of Crater Rock, itself, is just 200 years old and formed during these eruptions. The heat of rising magma in the crater eventually sent pyroclastic flows down the Sandy and White River canyons — rolling clouds of super-heated ash and debris that buried the entire landscape.

A closer look at the buried valley floor reveals mummified trees.

The Old Maid eruptions deposited about one hundred feet of debris throughout the upper White River canyon, filling the formerly U-shaped glacial valley with a flat fan of volcanic boulders, cobbles and fine ash. The outflow from the White River Glacier has since carved deeply into the debris flow, revealing the old valley floor and some of the thousands of mummified trees knocked over by the Old Maid event.

A flat-topped ridge in the middle of the White River canyon known as Mesa Terrace (see earlier schematic) is a remnant of the debris flow that shows the original depth of the debris above the valley floor.

Close-up of an entire tree, tipped over and buried where it fell on the former valley floor.

Two types of debris flow swept down the southern slopes of Mount Hood during the Old Maid eruptions. The most destructive were the pyroclastic flows, which many of us are familiar with from the colossal Mount St. Helens eruption of May 18, 1980.

In addition to the hot pyroclastic flows, cooler mudflows from flash-melted glaciers and snowfields also swept down Mount Hood’s south slopes during the Old Maid events. We know the buried forests at the bottom of White River Canyon fell victim to these mudflows, as pyroclastic flows would have instantly incinerated the standing timber. Instead, the cooler debris flows simply knocked the forests over, and buried them under layers of mud and debris.

Scientists believe these trees were partially buried, then broken off by subsequent flows.

Scientists believe the old valley floor now being revealed by erosion was of glacial origin, dating back to the last major glacial advance of the White River Glacier some 10,000 years ago. Thus, forests grew undisturbed along the former valley floor of the White River for a very long time.

Hiking to the Overlook

Hiking to the White River buried forest overlook is easy and scenic, as well as historic and iconic: it follows Mount Hood’s famous Timberline Trail for 0.7 miles to the impressive rim of the White River canyon. This section of trail also serves as the Pacific Crest Trail, the 2,000-mile epic trek from Mexico to Canada.

To find the trailhead, park in the lower, overflow lot located to the east of Timberline Lodge. Park near a gated dirt on the west side of the parking area. Follow this old road steeply uphill for about 200 yards to an obvious junction with the Timberline Trail, and turn right (or, if you’re coming from the lodge, follow any of the trails beyond the lodge uphill to the Timberline Trail and turn right). The Timberline Trail quickly traverses into a side-canyon, crossing the headwaters of the Salmon River.

Next, the Timberline Trail rambles across pumice-covered slopes and soon reaches a sign marking the Richard L. Kohnstamm Wilderness, created in 2009 as an addition to the wilderness complex that encircles Mount Hood. Kohnstamm was the resort operator responsible for resurrecting a struggling Timberline Lodge in the 1950s, and setting the resort on the successful path that it continues to enjoy today.

[click here for a larger, printable map]

Beyond the wilderness boundary, the trail descends across another pumice slope, then drops more steeply on a surface of loose glacial till as it traces the west moraine of the White River canyon. Soon, you will reach the overlook where the Timberline Trail follows the moraine crest, and arrives at a stand of trees. This is a good spot to stop and take in the scenery, and especially to pick out the signs of the buried forest, at the bottom of the canyon, below.

The south-facing slopes and open terrain can make this a hot, dusty hike in late summer, so be sure to carry water. You will also want a pair of binoculars to view the buried forest details more closely. If you have the time and energy after visiting the buried forest overlook, you can retrace your step to the dirt access road, then turn right and follow it to Silcox Hut, about 0.8 miles from the trailhead. The hut was the original upper terminal for the first Magic Mile ski lift in the late 1930s, and today is maintained as an historic structure.

SOLVED: North Side Waterfall Mystery

August 28, 2011

Fans of the classic 1975 edition of Jack Grauer’s “Mount Hood: A Complete History” have memorized the many rare photos and stories found only in this unique book. For waterfall hunters, the photo on page 226 (shown above) is particularly compelling. The 1890s image is titled “Wallalute Falls on Compass Creek”, and shows the tiny figure of a man at the base of a dramatic falls.

The mystery in this caption stems from the fact that USGS maps have long shown Wallalute Falls to be the prominent cascade on the Eliot Branch, just below Cloud Cap. This huge falls is visible from Inspiration Point on the Cloud Cap Road, and is clearly not the same as the cascade shown in the Grauer book.

This article attempts to untangle the story of these waterfalls, and the confusion surrounding the names of the remarkable, mysterious group of waterfalls spread across the Eliot, Compass and Coe drainages.

The story begins in June 2010, when I posted a report at on my first good view of the two mapped waterfalls on the Coe Branch. I had spotted them from an off-trail outcrop on the east rim of the Hood River Valley, and captured this grainy view from a very long telephoto image:

My excitement over this sighting began with the first good look at the very tall, powerful Coe Falls. Though I had explored the brink of the falls from the Timberline Trail, I had never made the rugged descent to the base of the falls. Thus, finally seeing this magnificent waterfall in its entirety was a thrill.

I watched Coe Falls for a moment through the lens, and then to my astonishment, I realized that the adjacent falls (on an unnamed tributary to the Coe Branch) was also in plain view! While Coe Falls was towering and stately, this neighboring cascade was a sprawling, graceful veil. I gave the unnamed falls the working title of “Kalakwhahtie Falls”, which is Chinook jargon for “petticoat”, and quite descriptive of the falls (and I couldn’t bring myself to add another “Bridal Veil” falls to the long list with that name!)

Wayne Harvey’s Adventures

Based on my report and the photo schematic I provided, local waterfall adventurer Wayne Harvey was intrigued, and in July 2010 made an epic solo trip into the Coe Branch canyon to explore and document this impressive pair of waterfalls. His trip produced the first known contemporary image of Coe Falls, thundering into its huge amphitheater:

Coe Falls in 2010

Wayne also captured the first known photo of Kalakwhahtie Falls, cascading over the east wall of the Coe Falls amphitheater. Though the mid-summer stream levels in Wayne’s photo (below) were notably lower than in my grainy images from across the valley, his images captured a uniquely beautiful waterfall:

Kalakwhahtie Falls in 2010

Wayne’s photos of Coe Falls immediately raised questions about the Wallalute Falls image in the Grauer book. The resemblance was striking, and without definitive modern images of the waterfalls on Compass Creek to compare to, another possibility arose: was the falls in Jack Grauer’s book actually Coe Falls?

Further intrigued by the unfolding mystery, Wayne made a second, even more rugged solo trip into the Coe Branch canyon in July 2011, this time to explore Compass Creek and document the remaining waterfalls of Mount Hood’s north slope.

Wayne’s 2011 return trip took him across the boulder-filled floor of the Coe Branch valley, then into the dense underbrush of the remote Compass Creek canyon. His first discovery was the lower of the two mapped falls on Compass Creek to be much larger than anyone had imagined, dropping roughly 100 feet into a picturesque bowl (below).

Lower Compass Falls in 2011

The larger-than-expected lower falls also presented an obstacle for Wayne as he searched for a route upstream to the main falls. He later described a scramble up a steep chute that was “all fours in places”, and the only passable route. Beyond the scramble past the lower falls, Wayne continued upstream to an impressive view of Compass Creek Falls, dropping nearly 200 feet into a sheer amphitheater (below).

The real Wallalute Falls on Compass Creek in 2011

With this image, Wayne had solved the Wallalute Falls mystery: the falls pictured in the Grauer book is clearly the same as the falls he documented on Compass Creek. Wallalute Falls is indeed on Compass Creek, not the Eliot Branch.

Unraveling the Mapping Mystery

With Wayne Harvey’s trip report from Compass Creek in hand, it was now possible to unravel another waterfall mystery. This time, the confusion involves another historic photo from the area dating from the 1890s, and titled “Strawnahan’s Falls” (below):

1890s Stranahan Falls - known for decades as “Wallalute”

For years, waterfall hunters have recognized this falls to be the large, prominent falls on the Eliot Branch identified on maps as Wallalute Falls (shown below in its modern form). The reference to “Strawnahan” (which is clearly a misspelling of “Stranahan”, the name given to a nearby ridge in honor of area pioneers) was assumed to be either an informal name that was later replaced by “Wallalute” or simply an error on the historic photo, itself.

Stranahan Falls as it appears today, after years of recent flooding have scoured the Eliot Branch canyon

Wayne Harvey’s field documentation of the real Wallalute Falls now seems to provide definitive evidence that a map error occurred, transferring the “Wallalute” name from Compass Creek to the Eliot Branch, with the “Stranahan” name simply getting lost in the shuffle.

The following map provides the context for the USGS map error by showing the close, and potentially confusing proximity of (1) Stranahan Falls (labeled as Wallalute on USGS maps), (2) the true Wallalute Falls on Compass Creek, and (3) the lower falls on Compass Creek.

Still another twist in this saga comes from a later, more obscure edition of the Grauer book, published in 2006. In this edition, Grauer describes the work of Mount Hood pioneer Mark Weygandt building the earliest trails in the vicinity of Cloud Cap Inn:

“It was probably in this year (1900) that he built trails. One trail led from the low end of Ghost Ridge to a view of Stranahan Falls. He then extended it across Eliot Creek to Stranahan Ridge and to Wallalute Falls and Canon Balls Falls on Compass Creek, at the bottom of Adams’ Hole. Parts of this route later became part of [the] Timberline Trail. He also made a trail down Sand Creek Ridge to a viewpoint of the falls on Sand Creek, later named Polallie Creek.”

These accounts are the gold standard for Mount Hood history, partly because Grauer lived a good portion of it himself, but also because of the extensive spoken history he has documented through interviews of the historic figures, themselves.

Grauer’s description gives a name to the lower Compass Creek falls for the first time in recent memory — “Canon Ball Falls” — as well as the canyon section that encompasses both Wallalute and Canon Ball falls on Compass Creek — “Adams’ Hole”. Grauer is also definitive on the Stranahan and Wallalute names, correctly tying them to the Eliot Branch and Compass Creek, respectively.

Mapping the North Side Waterfalls

The USGS map error that created the confusion may go back more than a century, as it appears to be reflected on all USGS maps known to carry the name “Wallalute”. The follow map excerpt (below) is from 1924, and shows how the error could have occurred: note that early topographic maps didn’t always show the crosshatch used to denote waterfalls on more contemporary maps. With this omission, and the close proximity of Compass Creek and the Eliot Branch on earlier, small-scale maps, it’s easy to see how later cartographers might have been confused as to which stream Wallalute Falls was really on.

1924 USGS Map

The following USGS map excerpt (below) was published in 1962, and is the first to attach Wallalute Falls specifically to the Eliot Branch. This map appeared when the 1:24,000 topographic series was being published, and the larger scale allowed features like Wallalute Falls to be more definitively identified — or, in this case — misidentified. Though the location of Wallalute was in error on the 1962 sheets, these large-scale maps did show the the waterfalls on Compass Creek and the Coe Branch accurately for the first time.

1962 USGS Map

Pulling all of this together, the following is an oblique view of the north side region showing all of the waterfalls in context: Stranahan Falls on the Eliot Branch, Wallalute and Canon Ball falls on Compass Creek, and Kalakwhahtie and Coe falls on the Coe Branch.

(Click here for a larger map)

Also shown are a couple of unnamed tributary waterfalls in the Coe Branch canyon, and there are surely other waterfalls yet to be discovered in this seldom-visited area.

In an effort to close the chapter on this naming saga, I plan to provide the documentation from this article to the Oregon Board of Geographic Names (OBGN), in hopes that they can eventually look into the matter and perhaps correct the map error of more than a century ago.

Visiting the Waterfalls

The series of waterfalls described in this article are remote and difficult to reach. Visiting these waterfalls is only for expert explorers.

Wayne Harvey approached the Coe and Compass Creek falls from the Elk Cove Trail, dropping into the canyon just beyond the prominent Coe Canyon overlook. This required a rugged descent of nearly a thousand vertical feet, followed by challenging bushwhacks at stream level to the waterfalls.

1920s Visitors to Cloud Cap taking in the view of Stranahan Falls (just to the right of the small tree in front of the car) and Mount Hood from Inspiration Point

Stranahan Falls can be seen from Inspiration Point, but represents a potentially dangerous descent into a canyon that has been destabilized by recent floods. However, there are good views of the falls from a boot path that descends to a rocky overlook, just below Inspiration Point on the Cloud Cap Road.

One of the trail concepts in the Mount Hood National Park Campaign calls for a “low trail” paralleling the Timberline Trail. On the north side of Mount Hood, this new route would connect the dots among the string of waterfalls described in this article. Wayne Harvey’s remarkable images of the waterfalls only underscore the case for providing access to these beautiful places, hiding in plain sight.

Acknowledgements: special thanks to Wayne Harvey for the use of his images and field reports, and to both Wayne Harvey and Bryan Swan of the Northwest Waterfall Survey for their help in untangling the history of geographic names in the Eliot, Compass and Coe drainages.