Between a rock and a hard place…

Sometime in the past couple of years, a refrigerator-sized piece of basalt split from the cliffs above Horsetail Falls, tumbled across two switchbacks on Gorge Trail 400, and landed perfectly on a third, forming a handy bench that only Mother Nature could design – or did she?

The convenient boulder that recently appeared on Trail 400, above Horsetail Falls - the work of man or nature?

The convenient boulder that recently appeared on Trail 400, above Horsetail Falls - the work of man or nature?

Rocks like this are constantly breaking loose from the walls of the gorge, usually far from the view or earshot of hikers. Through the relentless effects of water, and cycles of freeze and thaw during the winter months, bits and pieces of the stacked layers of basalt eventually break free, and join the enormous piles of talus that have accumulated beneath the cliffs over the millennia.

The new bench-boulder above Horsetail Falls is a bit chunkier than most, but tiny when compared to the house-sized boulders that are known to break loose on occasion. One infamous event near Wahclella Falls in the late 1960s was massive enough to send an entire subdivision of house-sized boulders into Tanner Creek, temporarily forming a small lake in the aftermath.

Looking down at the new boulder, the view is a bit more menacing, with a big bite taken out of the solid rock wall in the foreground, and a trail of debris, below.

Looking down at the new boulder, the view is a bit more menacing, with a big bite taken out of the solid rock wall in the foreground, and a trail of debris, below.

Assuming that the big rock did land in the middle of the trail, there are a couple of miracles that suggest divine placement. First, the boulder missed the adjacent wall, though it took a sizeable bite out of a retaining wall further uphill (see photo, above). Second, the boulder managed to land parallel to the path, and just far enough from the rock wall to allow hikers to easily slip between… a rock and a hard place!

It’s possible that trail crews could have jimmied this massive stone into its convenient position, but unlikely. Just one cubic foot of solid basalt weighs in at a staggering 188 lbs, which means that this fridge-sized weighs at least 12,000 pounds — more than six tons!

Perfect for a trailside respite, the big rock bench is already a favorite of hikers

Perfect for a trailside respite, the big rock bench is already a favorite of hikers

A more unnerving thought is the possibility of hikers actually witnessing nature at work, here, given the popularity of this well-traveled path nearly year-round. But, even with the scores of hikers walking by, there are plenty of quiet spells during the winter season, when this stone most likely made its move — and there’s also the dark of night.

However the big rock arrived, it has already become a popular stopping point for newbie hikers, puffing their way up the trail from Horsetail Falls, in search of Ponytail Falls. In this way, the big rock might just be Mother Nature’s way of tempting her most impatient species to stop and relax, if only for a moment.

Tamanawas Falls

Autumn colors on a foggy day in the huge amphitheater that surrounds Tamanawas Falls

Autumn in the huge amphitheater that holds Tamanawas Falls

For many years, the rustic path along Cold Spring Creek to Tamanawas Falls was a well-kept secret, but today the short trail to this 150-foot falls has become a popular hiking destination. Floods and a massive rock slide rearranged the trail at times in recent years, but the route has since been repaired, and is no less scenic for ravages of Mother Nature. The easy hike to the falls is described in the Portland Hikers Field Guide.

Cold Spring Creek is unique in that it drains a rather large portion of Mount Hood’s eastern slope, yet runs clear year-round because it carries no glacial outflow. The headwaters are formed by the sprawling Elk Meadows and the high, tundra-like slopes of Cooper Spur. A classic overnight backpacking trip (or long day hike) is the 15-mile loop along the Cold Spring Creek trail to Elk Meadows and return via Bluegrass Ridge.

Brilliant cottonwoods light up the trail to Tamanawas Falls in late October

Brilliant cottonwoods light up the trail to Tamanawas Falls in late October

One of the subtle attractions of the trail is the mix of eastside and westside flora — you’ll find eastside species like Western larch, Ponderosa pine, Douglas maple and quaking aspen flanked by more western species like Western redcedar, white pine and Douglas fir. There are also a surprising number of wildflowers in display in early summer, and in autumn the trail is lined with brilliant cottonwoods and vine maple.

A close-up view reveals the huge cavern behind Tamanawas Falls

A close-up view reveals the huge cavern behind Tamanawas Falls

But the main attraction on this hike is Tamanawas Falls, a thundering spectacle during early summer snow melt, and more graceful curtain later in the season. “Tamanawas” is the Chinook jargon word for “friendly or guardian spirit”, and the current spelling was corrected by the Oregon Board of Geographic Names in 1971. With its broad, symmetrical shape, the falls is more in the form of a Gorge waterfall, since it flows in a perfect curtain over what appears to a layer of basalt. But the rock here is andesite, a more recent material that has erupted from the vents that formed Mount Hood and many of the smaller peaks in the area.

The massive rock fall just downstream from the falls provides a unique glimpse into the formation of the canyon, and how actively the creek continues to change the landscape. In this section, the re-routed trail climbs through truck-sized boulders that dropped from the cliffs rimming the canyon just a few years ago. A destroyed footbridge from the old trail can be seen in the creek, far below.

Adventurous hikers will not want to stop where the spur trail to the falls abruptly ends at a viewpoint. With a bit of careful scrambling, even better views of the falls can be had from the stream, just beyond the trail, and with a bit more scrambling, hikers can even make their way into the huge cavern behind the falls. The view from behind the water is especially awesome, though too rough to reach for younger children and less experienced hikers.