Gorge Roundup: The Great, The Sad… and The Ugly

Do you take scenes like this in the eastern Columbia River Gorge for granted? Read on…

As we slowly emerge from a year of pandemic, three milestones in Columbia River Gorge news are noteworthy for those who love WyEast Country. What do they have in comment? In each case, the multi-layered governance (or lack thereof) in the Gorge continues to be a hurdle, even when the news is very good… or even great!

The Great: Mitchell Point Tunnel Project

For many years the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has been quietly moving toward actually replacing the legendary Mitchell Point “tunnel of many windows” with a new windowed tunnel. The new tunnel is along the bike and pedestrian trail that ODOT has been building to reconnect the original Historic Columbia River Highway, and construction began this spring. It’s a bold and visionary project, and another dramatic nod toward historic restoration along the old route. The former Oregon Highway Division destroyed the original tunnel in the 1966, when it was deemed a hazard to traffic on the modern freeway being constructed directly below, and it has been a dream for many to see it restored ever since.

The new 655-foot tunnel will have five arched windows, roughly patterned after the original Mitchell Point Tunnel. When completed, the tunnel will become the crown jewel of the larger Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, a concept 35 years in the making, with just five miles of trail remaining to be constructed. When the last five miles are complete, the trail is destined to become a world-class cycling destination that will allow visitors to ride from Troutdale to The Dalles without traveling along the modern freeway.

The iconic Mitchell Point Tunnel was completed in 1915, but it was destroyed by freeway construction just 51 years later in 1966. It lives on in our collective memory as the greatest engineering marvel of the original Columbia River Highway

This 1920s view of the original Mitchell Point Tunnel from the Washington side of the Columbia River shows both west viaduct that led to the tunnel and the famous series of windows (on the left). Freeway construction at the base of the cliffs in the 1960s destroyed both the tunnel and viaduct

The new Mitchell Point Tunnel will enter the basalt walls of Mitchell Spur, the smaller, northern offshoot of Mitchell Point, proper, and connect the existing Mitchell Point Wayside on the west side of the spur to a future trail and historic highway alignment east of Mitchell Point. Between the two new tunnel portals, five windows will frame Gorge views and light the way for visitors, providing an experience similar to what early motorists enjoyed from their Model-Ts in the early 1920s.

ODOT has posted a video on YouTube with drone footage and more background on the new tunnel:

While the new tunnel is certain to draw visitors who simply want to walk its length and enjoy the views, it also offers a terrific opportunity to create loop hikes that build upon the existing Mitchell Point Trail. This steep and difficult to maintain route is more like a goat path, but has become an increasingly popular viewpoint trail as placed like Angels Rest become overwhelmingly crowded. The Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation (OPRD) has already adopted a new loop trail concept for the west side of Mitchell Point that also would provide a better graded approach to the summit, and a loop for those willing to return along the existing, very steep route. 

This ODOT rendering shows the planned approach to the west portal of the new Mitchell Point Tunnel from the perspective of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, which currently stubs out at these cliffs (ODOT)

This rendering also shows the new west portal that ODOT is constructing for the new Mitchell Point Tunnel. A bump-out viewpoint (on the left) is also included in the design (ODOT)

This concept shows the design for five windows that will be incorporated into the new tunnel at Mitchell Point. ODOT describes the tunnel interior as “modern concrete”, so the exposed rock surface in this rendering and visible in the previous portal rendering may not be part of the final plan (ODOT)

This view shows the existing overlook at the Mitchell Point Wayside, where the paved trail stubs out at berm at the base of Mitchell Spur’s cliffs. The west portal to the new tunnel will enter the cliff visible just beyond the berm, at the right in this photo. The berm will be removed to extend the trail to the new tunnel portal.

The west portal design for the new tunnel preserves this relatively new (2013) overlook at Mitchell Point, already a popular stop for Gorge visitors

The new tunnel also offers a loop trail opportunity from the east side of Mitchell Point, with the tunnel providing a return to the main trailhead. Loop trails are popular with hikers because you get to see more scenery for your effort. But they can also be managed as one-way trails where crowds are a problem, greatly lessening the impact of passing hikers on heavily traveled trails. The OPRD plan for the Gorge also includes a loop trail concept for Angels Rest with this exact purpose in mind. From a hiker’s perspective, one-way loops also mean encountering far fewer people along your hike, so it can greatly improve the outdoor experience.

[Click here for a larger Mitchell Point West map]

[Click here for a larger Mitchell Point East map]

Will Mitchell Point become as crowded as Angels Rest? Maybe someday, though not anytime soon, simply because it’s much farther from Portland. But it will certainly become more popular than it is today, as foot traffic here has steadily grown over the past decade or so. With this in mind, one of the disappointments of the Mitchell Point project is the failure to plan for future crowds, and especially to differentiate between visitor types in the planned parking improvements. In the past, most visitors to Mitchell Point were there to walk to the existing overlook at the wayside, spending just a few minutes there while on their driving tour of the Gorge. Hikers, meanwhile, can spend several hours laboring up the steep path to the summit. 

Currently, both kinds of visitors compete for the same limited number of parking spots at Mitchell Point. As with unmanaged waysides elsewhere in the Gorge (Latourell Falls, Wahkeena Falls, Starvation Creek are just a few examples), hikers are now filling all of the spots at Mitchell Point on weekends, leaving touring families with no place to park. The new ODOT plan will create 18 parking spaces (including one disabled spot) compared to 16 today (including two disabled spaces). The net increase of two parking spaces is a drop in the bucket for this increasingly popular trailhead.

The existing parking area at Mitchell Point is relatively new – completed in early 2013, when this photo was taken. It provides a total of 16 parking spots, including two disabled spots. The construction of the Mitchell Point tunnel includes a complete reconstruction of the existing parking area

There are a couple of solutions that ODOT and OPRD could easily incorporate into the current construction phase without rivisitng the basic parking plan. First, mark a few parking spots for short-term, 30-minute parking for touring motorists to visit the wayside viewpoint and walk the new tunnel. Yes, it would have to be enforced to be effective, but even sporadic enforcement with a healthy fine would send a shockwave through hiking social media sites.

This is an ODOT rendering of the new parking area at Mitchell Point. While it’s surprising to see the fairly new parking lot being reconstructed so soon, the new design does manage to have a smaller paved area while expanding parking spaces (to a total of 18 compared to 16 today) and has a more efficient circulation design. The areas shown with picnic tables were once part of a very large parking area here as recently as 2012, so it’s disappointing that this design doesn’t better accommodate demand by included more spaces in that area (ODOT)

Second, ODOT and OPRD could take formally advantage of the long access drive to the Mitchell Point Wayside to allow for overflow parking. At a meeting of the Historic Columbia River Highway Steering Committee last summer, I asked if overflow shoulder parking would be allowed along the access road, and the ODOT response was a disappointing “no”. 

That’s not only short-sighted, it’s also a state of denial. Already, the nearby Starvation Creek wayside routinely has cars parked along both the access and exits roads, all the way to the freeway, for lack of a trailhead space and an effective parking management plan. As a result, weekend touring motorists hoping to visit the falls or use the restrooms at Starvation Creek have no prayer of finding a spot, as the entire lot is packed with hikers, most of them on hours-long hikes to the summit of Mount Defiance. That gives ODOT and OPRD a black eye, and a similar situation will surely unfold at the new Mitchell Point trailhead if parking isn’t more actively managed.

The Sad: Oneonta Tunnel Restoration

The Oneonta Tunnel in about 1915,, soon after it opened and before this section of the Historic Columbia River Highway was paved

In other tunnel news, ODOT recently (re)completed the restoration of the Oneonta Tunnel, near Multnomah Falls. The agency once again rebuilt the timbered interior of the tunnel, restoring work that was originally done back in the mid-2000 and completely burned in the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. It’s a beautiful restoration effort, and you should go see it soon, before it is once again destroyed by vandals carving up the restored woodwork. Because that sad fate is all but inevitable.

I wrote about this project recently in A Second Chance and New Vision for Oneonta? While there may be no appetite at ODOT or OPRD to pursue something more whimsical (like the museum proposed in the previous article!), it is frustrating to see the new restoration completed with zero consideration given to protecting the public’s investment from vandals. At the same meeting of the Historic Columbia River Highway Steering Committee last summer, I asked ODOT officials if there was a plan to secure the tunnel with gates of some kind, and the response was “no, because under national scenic area regulations, we can only restore it to its exact condition before the fire.” 

Mobs of young people descended on Oneonta Gorge each summer before the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire closed the area. Many made a point of vandalizing the wood interior of the Oneonta Tunnel while they were there

Still more frustrating is the fact that top officials from the U.S. Forest Service and ODOT who oversee funding for Gorge projects and scenic area regulation were part of this virtual meeting, and sat in silence when I asked whether this was a good use of public resources. Another committee member commented that vandalism in the form of tagging and graffiti has always been a problem in the Gorge. Perhaps, but is the point is that we shouldn’t care? 

Well, I’m still not buying it. If there is one thing that’s certain for large, well-funded agencies like the Forest Service and ODOT, it’s that where there is a will, there is a way. The cost to install gates would have been negligible compared to what ODOT budgets for the Gorge in a given year, and surely would be less costly than another redo in the coming years. In this case, there was simply no agency interest from the Forest Service or ODOT in protecting the newly restored tunnel, and that’s really discouraging.

ODOT completed the second restoration of the Oneonta Tunnel this spring, replacing the wood lining that was burned away in the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. Despite its recent history of vandalism, the tunnel is now open and completely unprotected, night and day

So, as lovely as the (second) restoration of the Oneonta Tunnel is, it falls under the column of “sad” for its poor stewardship of both the historic resource and the public funds spent to restore it. But who knows, maybe once the tagging starts up and triggers some unwelcome local media coverage, we’ll see some protection installed? A late response would be better than not at all, and I’d sure like to be proven wrong on the fate of the old tunnel.

The Ugly: Columbia Hills Energy Project

These beautiful, mosaic talus slopes along the Columbia Hills are ground zero for a proposed energy project that threatens to change the area forever. A jarring sea of giant wind turbines were installed along the crest of what is a sacred ridge for area tribes over the past 15 years, and now the turbines are the basis for still more energy development in this unprotected part of the Gorge

I will reluctantly end this article with one of the toughest development proposals to emerge in the Gorge in recent years. As ugly as the project is, however, the picture is not entirely bleak. The proposal is formally known as the “Goldendale Energy Project”, taking its name from what used to be the Goldendale Aluminum Plant, located adjacent to the John Day Dam in the eastern Gorge. But the site is miles away from Goldendale, Washington, and more importantly, it’s within the Columbia River Gorge and centered on Columbia Hills, a place sacred to area tribes. So, I’ve called it the Columbia Hills Energy Project for this article.

The aluminum plant at the John Day Dam went out of business decades ago, leaving badly polluted soils and groundwater behind where smelters once stood. It has since been undergoing a gradual cleanup operation, work that is ongoing. The Columbia Hills “stored energy” project proposes to build a large water storage basin in this polluted brownfield, connected by pipes to a second basin at the crest of the Columbia Hills, 2,000 vertical feet directly above the John Day Dam and the old aluminum plant site. When wind turbines are generating excess energy, water from the lower basin would be pumped to the upper basin, and could then be released back down to the lower basin to power hydro turbines during periods of peak demand (or low wind).

The system on the right is proposed for the Columbia Hills (Rye Development)

To the Ka-milt-pah band of the Yakima Nation (known in English as the Rock Creek Band), the Columbia Hills here are sacred. Their significance goes to the very creation of the Columbia Gorge, itself. Scientists believe the ice age Bretz (or Missoula) floods continued to repeatedly overwhelm the Gorge with hundreds of feet of water for nearly 2,000 years, finally ending some 13,000 years ago. Virtually every aspect of the Gorge as we know it was shaped by the floods, including the steep, exposed cliffs and rock monoliths that give the Gorge its iconic beauty. Their oral tradition tells us that the ancestral Ka-milt-pah people climbed to these ridge tops to escape this series of massive ice-age floods, watching the cataclysm from these high vantage points. 

Today, the Ka-milt-pah continue to gather first foods from these same hills, though now with the permission of farmers who own deeds to the ceded tribal lands here. In yet another insult to traditions and the defacement of their sacred places, tribal members now must gather foods under the shadow and hum of giant wind turbines that send “green” electricity to Portlanders. Unseen to urbanites are the miles of gravel access roads that were cut into pristine desert soils along these ridges to build and maintain the turbines, destroying still more of the ecosystem that the Ka-milt-pah people relied upon for millennia. And in yet another cruel irony, the windmills are now are central to the Columbia Hills Energy Project, as well.

The defunct, polluted aluminum plant at John Day dam (seen far below in this view) is proposed to hold the lower reservoir for the closed-loop energy system. This view is from the crest of the Columbia Hills, on sacred tribal land 2,000 feet above the river, where the upper reservoir would be constructed (Portland Business Journal)

The towering wind turbine that now line the Columbia Hills above John Day Dam are aggressively marketed as benign sources of clean energy, and yet each turbine requires a new road to be built, leaving a permanent scar on the land and introducing invasive plants to the largely pristine desert landscape. This snaking section of road in this view is on sacred tribal land near the proposed Columbia Hills Energy Project (Google Earth)

The service roads built for these windmills on the crest of the Columbia Hills resemble suburban cul-de-sacs, each cut into desert ground that had never even been plowed, and has provided tribal first foods for millennia (Google Earth)

Did you know that the stunning stretch of the Columbia River Gorge east of the Deschutes River does not enjoy the protections provided by the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (CRGNSA) to areas west of the Deschutes? The most jarring evidence of this second-class status are the hundreds of massive, white wind turbines that now dot the Columbia Hills along this unprotected stretch of the Gorge, from Maryhill Museum east to the John Day river and beyond. The visual impact of these turbines therefore wasn’t even a factor when they were constructed over the past 15 years.

It is truly a miracle and testament to the tenacity of Gorge advocates in the 1980s that we even have a CRGNSA to protect the Gorge, yet it’s also true that leaving the eastern portion of the Gorge out of the bill left the area tragically vulnerable to energy and development schemes that continue forever scar the Gorge we shall leave to future generations. The Columbia Hills Energy Project may be the latest scheme, but it certainly won’t be the last (lesser-known fact: the Maryhill Museum was among the opponents of the CRGNSA in the 1980s, which explains the forest of windmills that now mar the Gorge rim directly above the museum and continue for miles to the east).

The ancient and sustainable trumped by the new and industrial: the 1971 John Day Dam dwarfs traditional tribal fishing platforms, located just downstream from the dam

For the Danish corporate investors behind this project, the windmills along the Columbia Hills provide a world-class opportunity for pumped storage development. The hills rise anywhere from 1,200 to 2,000 feet above the Columbia River, a ready source of water to fill storage tanks. That’s probably as much as they know. The fact that it’s also remote from Portland urbanites who might otherwise be shocked to see a development of this scale proposed in “their Gorge” is just good fortune for the investors.

And so, it has fallen to the Confederated Yakima, Umatilla and Nez Perce nations to defend their homelands from yet another assault by Europeans seeking to, once again, commodify their native lands.

Countless generations of tribal fisherman have harvested salmon on these pebble beaches in the east Gorge for millennia. The lower reservoir for the proposed “energy loop” would be a stone’s throw from this iconic scene. Is it even possible to measure economic impacts of energy project against threats to the very culture of indigenous people?

The pace of change in the eastern stretch of the Gorge has been breathtaking in the past few decades. In 1957 – just 64 years ago — the gates on The Dalles Dam closed, drowning Celilo Falls and surrounding tribal settlements under 40 feet of water. This ended a way of life for indigenous peoples who had thrived here for thousands of years. Nine years later, in 1966, ODOT blasted and filled a 4-lane swath through the Gorge to construct today’s Interstate-84, destroying miles of wetlands and beaches along the way, and cutting off access to traditional tribal fishing sites in the process. In 1971, the gates were closed on John Day Dam, at the head of slackwater created by The Dalles Dam. Another stretch of rapids along the once-wild river disappeared, along with more beaches and wetlands. 

The vast, colorful pebble beaches in the east Gorge were left here by ice age floods that brought rock from the northern Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River Gorge. This river-worn piece of petrified wood is typical of these deposits

Both dams brought hundreds of steel transmission towers and thousands of miles of electrical cable that now drapes across the once-pristine Gorge landscape. And in the 2000s, big utilities rushed after state and federal renewable energy tax credits to line the Columbia Hills with hundreds of windmills, many built on sacred tribal sites. It’s true, these are all renewable energy sources that our region depends upon to power our homes and industry. Yet, it’s also true that our cheap energy has come at a catastrophic cost to tribal culture and economies, and wreaked havoc on one of the most spectacular natural landscapes on the planet. Isn’t it time to question just how “green” the energy harnessed in the Gorge really is?

Fortunately, a broad coalition of conservation advocates have joined the tribes in challenging the Columbia Hills Energy Project. They include both the Oregon and Washington chapters of the Sierra Club, the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Columbia Riverkeeper, Food and Water Watch, Portland Audubon and several other organizations.  This is encouraging, as corporate energy projects are famously costly and drawn-out battles with deep-pocketed (and often foreign) investors who are willing to ride out the opposition and ingratiate themselves to local elected officials. Witness that Washington Governor Jay Inslee recently signed a fast-track provision for energy storage projects just like this one (though we don’t know his position on this specific proposal). 

This lovely desert gulch along the Columbia River is immediately adjacent to the proposed Columbia Hills Energy Project. How will it be impacted? We don’t know yet…

Thankfully, the Washington Department of Ecology has determined the project to have “significant environmental impact”, ensuring that some rigor will be applied in the state permitting review. Whether that review can truly measure the impact of this proposal on tribal rights and traditions remains and open question that courts will likely have to decide.

Yes, stored energy projects are a good idea. They’re a creative, sustainable solution in a world facing a global climate crisis. We should welcome them!

Just not here. 

Punchbowl Park is (mostly) open for Business!

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Punchbowl Falls

Spring is a wonderful time to visit the new Punchbowl Falls County Park, located on the West Fork of the Hood River, near Dee. This article is offered an update on the new trails that area gradually being constructed in the park and a guide to visiting this beautiful area for a sneak preview while the trails are being completed.

Punchbowl Falls Park was acquired from a private timber company by the Western Rivers Conservancy just a few years ago, and finally came into public ownership in 2015 when Hood River County received a state grant to transfer the land from the conservancy. Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) has since been busy constructing a new loop trail geared toward families and casual hikers looking for an easy stroll with a lot of scenery.

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New entry sign at Punchbowl Falls Park

In 2016, TKO volunteers completed most of the West Fork Trail, a scenic route that traverses the open bluffs above the Punchbowl Gorge before arriving at a spectacular cliff-top viewpoint above Punchbowl Falls. The remaining segment of the West Fork Trail is expected to be completed by early summer, and will include a short spur to a viewpoint of beautiful Dead Point Falls, where a boisterous Dead Point Creek cascades into the West Fork.

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Punchbowl Falls Park Trails

(Click here for a large, printable trail map)

Over the summer and fall, TKO also expects to complete the Dogwood Trail, a short forest hike that will create a loop back to the trailhead. The completed loop will be just 0.8 miles in length, making it ideal for families and casual hikers. While the West Fork portion features views and rugged terrain, the Dogwood Trail offers a quiet forest and vibrant fall colors from vine maple and dogwoods that thrive under the Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine canopy.

The West Fork Trail

You can hike most of the new West Fork Trail now. Just look for an obvious new path heading off to the left about 100 feet down the park service road from the gate at the trailhead. The new trail descends briefly through forest before providing the first of many views into the Punchbowl Gorge.

As you travel this section, you’ll pass through several groves of gnarled Oregon White Oak that thrive along the rocky bluffs. Watch for the collapsing remains of an old stairwell making its way down the cliffs on the far side of the Gorge, too. These stairs were built in the 1950s, when the concrete fish ladder was constructed along the west side of the falls. While the ladder mars the natural beauty of the area, it does provide passage to extensive upstream fish habitat for salmon and steelhead.

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The old stairway to the fish ladder has seen better days…

You will also pass a series of faint trails that cross the new hikers route. While these informal paths are often used by kayakers to portage the falls, they were originally travelled by tribal fishermen visiting the falls. The area below the falls is still reserved for tribal fishing, and you may see local Native Americans fishing for salmon and steelhead from the cliffs inside the Punchbowl, just as their ancestors have for centuries.

The new trail soon descends through more Oregon White Oak groves to the spectacular viewpoint of Punchbowl Falls. Plan to spend some time here watching the mesmerizing churn of the falls into the huge pool below. Keep an eye on kids and pets, here — there are no railings along the abrupt cliff edge.

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The massive amphitheater at Punchbowl Falls

On clear days the viewpoint above Punchbowl Falls has an added surprise: Mount Hood rising in the distance, above the Punchbowl Gorge. From this viewpoint, you may also see tribal fishermen on the rocks below — while it is fine to watch them work from above, please be courteous.

The fish ladder to the right of the falls was completed in 1959. Here’s what Punchbowl Falls looked like before the ladder was constructed:

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Punchbowl Falls before the fish ladder was constructed in 1959

Hopefully, the ladder can someday be rebuilt in a way that restores some of the beauty of this spot, as it surely could not have been built in this manner under today’s environmental protections. This amazing place has deep significance to Native Americans, and it seems appropriate to undo some of the impacts of our modern age on a place so valued by the tribes.

From the Punchbowl overlook, the route climbs back into forest for a few hundred yards. TKO crews are still completing the groomed tread, but the rough path is easy to follow. Watch for a faint side trail heading off to the left a few yards before the West Fork Trail ends at the service road. This spur path leads to a terrific view of Dead Point Falls, where Dead Point Creek cascades into the West Fork. Watch kids and pets here, too, as the viewpoint is unprotected.

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Deadpoint Falls

While the West Fork Trail currently ends at the park service road, the Dogwood Trail will soon begin on the opposite side of the road and provide a loop trail back to the trailhead. In the meantime, read on for other places to explore…

Exploring the Confluence

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The Confluence

It’s easy to explore the northern section of Punchbowl Falls Park using the park service road and some of the fishing trails that crisscross the area. One of the most dramatic places to visit is the confluence of the West and East forks of the Hood River.

To reach the confluence, turn left on the service road from the end of the West Fork Trail and follow it to an obvious turnaround, where the road makes a sharp turn to the right, around the nose of a ridge. Look for a fisherman’s path on the left, heading steeply downhill hill to the confluence.

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Rowdy East Fork Hood River at the Confluence

The two rivers area study in contrasts. The East Fork is unruly and filled with glacial till, and has built a huge pile of cobbles were it meets the West Fork at the confluence. The West Fork is cold and clear, with a large eddy that makes for good fishing and safe place for kids to wade in summer.

Wildflowers and Fall Colors

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Grass Widow above the Punchbowl Gorge

Spring and fall are the best times to visit Punchbowl Falls Park. In spring the waterfalls are at their best, and there are wildflowers blooming throughout the park. In fall, the park lights up with autumn colors that only the east side forests can offer. Both seasons are quiet compared to the summer months, when the park can be quite busy with swimmers and floaters on weekends.

Wildflowers at the park are a unique blend of east and west. In April, the bluffs above Punchbowl Gorge are blanketed with Grass Widow (above), a desert flower common in the Columbia Gorge east of Rowena. The same meadows of grass widow are shared by Larkspur (below), more common in the wet west end of the Gorge.

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Larkspur along the West Fork Trail

In forested areas, you’re likely to see Trillium (below), a hallmark of the rainforests of the western Gorge, and in early spring you’ll find Glacier Lily (below) where the trail passes through Oregon White Oak groves.

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Trillium along the Dogwood Trail

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Glacier Lily near the Punchbowl Falls overlook

Watch closely and you might spot Calypso Orchid (below). This is another native more common in the wet forests of the west Gorge, but makes its home in the transitional forests of Punchbowl Falls Park.

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Calypso Orchid along the Dogwood Trail

In autumn, Pacific Dogwood (below) brings brilliant color to the forest understory throughout the park. In western Oregon, dogwood generally fade to pale yellow or pink in the fall, but on the east side of the Cascades, these graceful trees take on brilliant shades of coral, crimson and burgundy. In spring, Pacific Dogwood also blooms with handsome white flowers. When completed, the new Dogwood Trail will pass through several groves of these beautiful trees.

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Dogwood in Autumn at Punchbowl Falls Park

Vine Maple is everywhere in the forests of Punchbowl Falls Park, and like the native dogwood, these graceful trees light up in autumn, providing shades of crimson, orange and bright yellow. Vine Maple crowd the route of the new Dogwood Trail, and will combine with the dogwoods to make this an exceptionally beautiful autumn hike.

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Vine Maple in Autumn

Fall colors in Punchbowl Park peak in mid-October and spring wildflowers are at their best from mid-April through early June.

A View into the Gorge

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West Fork entering Punchbowl Gorge

If you still have time after visiting the West Fork Trail and the confluence, once last corner of Punchbowl Falls Park you might want to explore is the dizzying view from the bridge located just beyond the trailhead parking area. Simply walk about 200 yards to the soaring bridge for a spectacular look into Punchbowl Gorge, but use care — the railings are uncomfortably low!

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The Narrows in Punchbowl Gorge

The view upstream from the bridge encompasses the West Fork roaring into the narrow mouth of the Gorge, framed by towering walls of columnar basalt. The small structure just upstream is a river gauge used to monitor stream flows on the West Fork. The view downstream from the bridge peers into the narrows section of the gorge, with the West fork carving stunning curves and pools into the basalt walls.

These scenes, and the massive basalt amphitheater of Punchbowl Falls area among the best Columbia River basalt formations found anywhere in the region. It’s mind-boggling that this spectacular canyon was in the hands of a private timber company for more than a century! Thankfully, it is now protected in perpetuity as a nature park.

What’s Ahead?

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The author with TKO volunteers and county officials at a recent scouting trip at Punchbowl Park

Much work lies ahead for Punchbowl Falls Park this year. TKO has several volunteer work parties planned (you can learn more about them here), and Hood River County will begin improving the parking area at the trailhead to be a more accessible.

By fall of 2017, the new Dogwood Trail should be completed, and TKO volunteers will install trail signs on both the West Fork and Dogwood trails, officially opening the new loop to visitors. Over the long term, Hood River County and TKO are also planning an extension of the West Fork trail to the confluence and other trails in the new park.

Where to Find Punchbowl Falls Park?

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Punchbowl Gorge and bridge from the West Fork Trail

It’s easy to get to the new park! From Hood River, take 12th Avenue south where it soon becomes Tucker Road (aka Route 281). Follow Tucker Road and signs pointing to Lost Lake. After crossing the Hood River at Tucker Bridge, watch for the Dee Highway immediately veering off to the right.

Follow Dee Highway (also part of Route 281) to the rusty, dusty remains of the old mill town of Dee. Veer right again, crossing railroad tracks and then the East Fork Hood River, then turn right again onto Punchbowl Road just beyond the bridge. Stay straight on Punchbowl Road at a 3-way junction, then enter forest at a hairpin turn. Watch for the parking area on the right, just short of the high bridge over the West Fork Hood River.

The new trail begins just beyond the metal gate that marks the park service road.

Enjoy!

 

 

Zack Frank’s Undiscovered America

The intrepid Zack Frank visits Mount Hood country

The intrepid Zack Frank visits Mount Hood country

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Zack Frank, the young photojournalist behind Undiscovered America, his project to photograph 56 places across the country that should become the next generation of national parks — Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge among them! With this ambitious project, he hopes to contribute to a new vision for the next 150 years of conservation in America.

We met at Punchbowl Falls on the West Fork Hood River, a fitting spot for a conversation about overlooked gems that could stand next to the nation’s best-known national parks with a little vision and restoration. Our meeting was made possible by local filmmaker Christopher Alley, whose Ampersand Productions is currently filming a documentary dedicated to the new national parks movement, and featuring the Mount Hood National Park Campaign, in particular.

The film crew: Emily Wahl, Eric Macey and Christopher Alley

The film crew: Emily Wahl, Eric Macey and Christopher Alley

Zack came to the Undiscovered America idea from seeds sown in his youth, when his family drove from Pennsylvania to the great parks of the northern Rockies, including Yellowstone. These early experiences helped shape Zack’s refreshingly holistic vision for the national parks that would focus on restoring gems like Mount Hood and the Columbia Gorge as unique ecosystems that are not represented in the national park system today.

His 6-month grand tour of future parks is funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign that drew nearly 300 backers and set a record for nature photography projects. Zack will be the first known photographer to visit the 50+ sites proposed for national park status.

Once his tour is complete, Zack will release a 200-page Undiscovered America book documenting his journey, and hopefully rallying a new parks movement in the same way that earlier photographers brought places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Redwoods and North Cascades to the public conscience for the first time. Images from his trek will also be displayed as a traveling show in art galleries across the country, further helping to spread his vision for a new era of national parks.

Stage 1 of Zack's journey focused on the southern part of the country

Stage 1 of Zack’s journey focused on the southern part of the country

Though Mount Hood and the Gorge are part of Zack’s tour, they are different in that they are anything but “undiscovered”! Yet, they do fit perfectly the larger frame of bringing more enlightened and sustainable land management to these special places under the unique stewardship of the National Park Service.

Zack brings his experience as a photojournalist in the United States Marine Corp to the project. After meeting with him, it was clear that also he also brings a remarkable degree of wisdom, confidence and determination to the project that are beyond his years, a reflection of his time spent in Iraq during his service to our country.

We’re also very fortunate that Zack has chosen to continue his service to the country in the form of his Undiscovered America project. Hearing about his vision for the next wave in the American conservation movement was a breath of fresh air. Too many in the old guard of the movement have become prisoners of playing defense, a necessary posture during an era of intense attack on the environment, for sure, but now suddenly out of touch with a new generation of Americans looking for a more compelling and sweeping new vision.

Zack’s project avoids that the fear tactics and hot-button issues approach to conservation that no longer resonates with younger people, who instead are responding more to messages of hope, new ideas and opportunities to work collaboratively for broader solutions than the false choice of “wilderness-or-nothing”. National parks offer a great fit for this generation.

Stage 2 of Zack's tour begins in the Pacific Northwest and travels across the northern states

Stage 2 of Zack’s tour begins in the Pacific Northwest and travels across the northern states

Zack says that he marches to the drum of the likes of John Muir, Timothy O’ Sullivan and Ansel Adams, and embraces the same sweeping vision that caught the imagination of the American mainstream and helped build the National Park System we treasure today. Most importantly, he thinks in increments of decades and centuries — not just the next election campaign or fundraising cycle. In that way, he is true to the pioneering conservationists he holds as his inspiration.

I challenged Zack with a series of defeatist arguments I have heard against protecting Mount Hood and the Gorge as a national park — all too often from some of Oregon’s conservation leaders: how can an area with ski resorts, major highways, utility corridors and cut-over forest lands even be considered for national park status?

One by one, he knocked these arguments down with real examples of existing parks where these supposed deal-killing obstacles like these are managed within a park context, in concert with a broader conservation philosophy that still ensures a sustained natural legacy.

The author meeting with Zack at Punchbowl Falls

The author meeting with Zack at Punchbowl Falls

Zack Frank doesn’t see himself as a standard bearer, simply part of an emerging coalition. But what I saw in Zack is the face of a new generation of conservation leaders — whether he knows it, or not — who are unencumbered by false dichotomies and narrow orthodoxy that have too often muted the conservation movement. He is solidly a millennial, and like so many of his generation that I encounter, Zack gives me a renewed energy and sense of optimism that we can once again do great things on the conservation front, and starting with a new national parks movement!

We’re just passing through, after all…

Tribal fishing at Punchbowl Falls

Tribal fishing at Punchbowl Falls

During our visit on the high cliffs above Punchbowl Falls, we watched as a group of tribal fisherman worked the massive pool below the falls for spring Chinook. As they went about their tasks, it struck me that these men were fishing in the footsteps of generations of ancestors who had harvested salmon at this spot for millennia — and that that the stakes are very high for the Mount Hood region, right now.

For centuries, the abundant ecosystems of Mount Hood and the Gorge have supported a large Native American population with a natural bounty that only now is at risk, thanks to just a few decades of rapid development and over-harvesting of resources. In this context, the broader frame that Zack Frank raises for Mount Hood the Gorge is this: we’re just passing through, so what will we choose to leave behind for future generations?

Tribal fishermen at Punchbowl Falls

Tribal fishermen at Punchbowl Falls

While the ecosystems in the Mount Hood region have so far been resilient in the face of these new pressures (the forests have continued to recover after repeated harvesting, salmon return to ancient habitat when we reopen once-damned streams like the West Fork), we are now facing an unprecedented onset of global climate change. Will the sprawling maze of new clear cuts that now mar the upper West Fork valley recover, once again? Probably. But for the first time in millennia, we don’t really know for sure, and so our margin of error grows narrower in just how far we can push the ecosystem to meet our needs.

Selective thinning at the Punchbowl Park site

Selective thinning at the Punchbowl Park site

On our walk to Punchbowl Falls, Zack and I talked about some of the answers that were all around us. Restoring Mount Hood means thinning plantation thickets, where industry efforts to short-circuit the natural reforestation cycle on clear cuts has left dangerously crowded stands of unhealthy, fire-prone trees. One such thinning project was underway at the Punchbowl site, where the Western Rivers Conservancy has carefully removed several insect-compromised trees from the forest.

The Punchbowl property, itself, provides another answer: private land trusts working with local communities and governments to restore and bring into public ownership the most important sites and habitats. This continues to be the winning formula for Mount Hood and the Gorge, with much work to be done — and still a need for a larger national park vision to guide often fragmented efforts. Like most of the sites on Zack’s tour, the broader vision for Mount Hood and the Gorge will require a creative blend of acquisition, restoration and new partnerships.

Wy’East Comes to Visit

As I finished my interview with Zack Frank, the tribal fisherman below us were packing up their harvest for the day — a string of salmon that would soon provide food for their families or perhaps be sold in one of the familiar roadside fish stands.

Wy'East makes an appearance at Punchbowl Falls

Wy’East makes an appearance at Punchbowl Falls

As we watched them scale the cliffs above the falls with their catch, the crest of Mount Hood — Wy’East — suddenly emerged from the clouds, brilliant with a fresh dusting of snow. Zack had spent the morning on the mountain, socked in by a lingering Pacific front, so it was his first sighting of the mountain on this leg of his trek.

The scene unfolding at that moment could not have made a better case for why Mount Hood and the Gorge deserve better: the raw beauty, the amazing collection of ecosystems, from rain forest, fire forests and oak savannah to alpine and desert ecosystems; and perhaps most unique to the area, the rich, unparalleled human history. It was all right there in front of us, and I was thrilled that it could be part of Zack’s journey!

How to support Zack

Zack’s current project was successfully funded through his Kickstarter campaign, but you can still support him by visiting his website and ordering a copy of his forthcoming Undiscovered America book.

Mockup of Zack's forthcoming book about his journey

Mockup of Zack’s forthcoming book about his journey

You can also be a friend of the national parks. Zack recommends the National Parks Conservation Association (and be sure to let the know you support new parks!), but I would suggest an even broader offering: an open mind to what might be, and a willingness to help a new generation of leaders realize their bold aspirations — including a new national parks movement!