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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building on our Success in the Gorge

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

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

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

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

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

The Vision: Restoring the Mount Hood Loop Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Trail Sections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Loop Highway State Trail Concept: West Section

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

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

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

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

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

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Loop Highway State Trail Concept: Historic Section

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

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

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Loop Highway State Trail Concept: East Section

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

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

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

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

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

Arrah Wanna Time Travel

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The giant boulder at the camp entrance is hard to miss!

Earlier this year, I attended a Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) event at Camp Arrah Wanna, a venerable youth camp located in the deep forests along the Salmon River, west of Mount Hood. The camp’s origins are a bit hazy, but today’s youth camp emerged from the Arrah Wanna Inn, one of many roadside hotels and restaurants that lined the Mount Hood Loop Highway soon after it opened in the early 1920s.

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The original Arrah Wanna Inn as it appeared in the 1920s

During the heyday of the Arrah Wanna Inn, travelers explored the area in a growing network of trails to nearby forest lookouts and along the Salmon River. Locals also served as fishing and horseback tour guides to the growing stream of auto tourists.

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Early visitor to the Salmon River near Camp Arrah Wanna in 1915 (Wikimedia Commons)

Today, the camp hosts outdoor school each spring, faith-based youth camps in summer and winter and many other private retreats and events over the course of the year.

Today’s main lodge at the camp is housed in the historic Arrah Wanna Inn building. And though it has been decades since I spent my summers in high school and college working at camp, walking into the dining room in the main lodge brought back a flood of great memories.

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The rustic dining hall in the main lodge

Walking through the old dining room, something hanging above the east fireplace caught my eye: a huge watercolor panorama of the surrounding Mount Hood country!

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The panoramic masterpiece in the main lodge dining room

[click here for a large view]

Panoramic, hand-tinted photos and paintings of Mount Hood were popular in the early 1900s, but this was different. This painting was intended so have some geographic accuracy, and is clearly a custom original. The frame and age of painting suggest that it was originally done for the Arrah Wanna Inn, and simply came with the building when Camp Arrah Wanna was established.

The artist behind this beautiful painting is unknown, though there may be a signature hidden inside the frame or on the back of the painting. The rest of this article is a tour of the details in this amazing, little known painting, section by section.

Taking a closer look…

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Close-up of the Salmon and Sandy River valleys with Mount Adams on the horizon

Front and center in the painting is the Welches community, known today as the Resort at the Mountain. Mount Adams appears on the horizon in this view, which is geographically correct. The large butte in front of Mount Adams in a mystery, however. My guess is that it reflects Hickman Butte, locked away behind the gates that close the Bull Run watershed to the public today, but the site of a prominent forest lookout in the 1920s, when I think this painting was made.

Looking more closely at the details in the Welches area, you can clearly see the Arrah Wanna Inn, which is why I believe this was created for the Inn as a custom artwork.

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Detail of the Arrah Wanna Inn in the 1920s or early 1930s

In the foreground of the painting, a horseback party has arrived at a viewpoint overlooking the Salmon and Sandy River valleys (below). The artist has used some license here to place both Mount Adams and Welches in view, but in reality Mount Adams can only be seen from the upper part of Huckleberry Mountain. The long-unmaintained Arrah Wanna Trail did climb directly to Huckleberry Mountain, and there were viewpoints of the the valleys from sections of this old trail, so I think the artist simply merged these perspectives.

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Detail of horseback party arriving at a viewpoint on Huckleberry Mountain

It’s hard to see, but the image shows a man leading five women and two horses to this viewpoint, with a second man bringing up the rear. We can only guess on the significance of the group — is it a biographical detail of the artist, perhaps? We’ll probably never know.

Also visible in this close-up look at the painting (below) is the Samuel Welch homestead and pasture that gave the community its name. The pasture was once known as “Billy’s Goat Pasture”, after Samual Welch’s son William, and today has been converted to be part of the golf course at the Inn at the Mountain.

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Detailed view of the Samuel Welch homestead that is today’s Welches community

Moving to the upper left corner of the painting (below), the artist included remarkable detail of Portland and the farm towns like Gresham, Powell Valley, Troutdale and Sandy that have since become suburbs.

Look closely, and you can see that the artist has carefully included Mount Scott, Kelley Butte, Mount Tabor and Rocky Butte in the painting details, as well as the Clackamas River, Cazadero interurban rail line, Columbia River and once-perfect cone of Mount St. Helens on the horizon.

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Mount St. Helens rising above the Sandy River eastern edge of Portland

These details show the artist to be a person with excellent knowledge of the area, since several of these features are in gegrpahically correct, but not actually visible from Huckleberry Mountain without floating a couple thousand feet above the summit.

Moving to the right side of the painting, the artist has rendered a beautiful and very accurate portrait of Mount Hood (below). Zigzag Mountain — the long ridge in front of the mountain — is correctly shown as burned over. Lookout photos from the 1930s confirm that nearly all of this ridge burned in the early 1900s, though forests have largely returned today.

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Beautifully rendered view of Mount Hood and the historic loop highway

A closer look (below) shows the confluence of the Zigzag and Sandy Rivers at today’s Zigzag community. The gray coloring along the Sandy River (approaching from the top) is also accurate to the period. In the early 1900s, the devastation from the Old Maid Flat eruptions of the late 1700s were still on display, as early photos show. Though mostly forested now, the valley floor was still a mostly open plain of cobbles and volcanic debris when the painting was created.

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Detailed view of the Zigzag River confluence with the Sandy River

There’s another example of artistic license in this part of the painting, too. The large lake in the distance (below) appears to be Bull Run Lake, with Buck Peak rising behind it. The lake is completely hidden from the vantage point for the painting by intervening peaks and ridges.

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Bull Run Lake is included in the details of this painting

I had to “fly” to over 18,000 feet — almost 3 vertical miles — above Huckleberry Mountain to actually see Bull Run Lake from this perspective. But the artist’s license in showing this detail is also another example of great knowledge of the area landscape, as the position of the lake is geographically correct. That’s a real feat in an era when only a few, small-scale topographic maps of the region existed!

Looking more closely at Mount Hood and the loop highway where it climbs through the Zigzag Valley and up Laurel Hill to Government Camp (below) shows more terrific details. On the mountain, major features like Steel Cliff, Illumination Rock, Reid Glacier and Yocum Ridge are all included and proportionally accurate, with a bit of artistic license. If you look very closely, you can even pick out Cathedral Ridge, McNeil Point and Barrett Spur, all of which are geographically accurate from the vantage point of Huckleberry Mountain.

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Mount Hood and the Zigzag Valley

Looking very closely at Laurel Hill and the highway approach to Government Camp (below), the old loops on the historic highway are shown in great detail, along with the Little Zigzag River at the first highway switchback and Yocum Falls on Camp Creek to the right of the third switchback. The burn details are also correct, here, as most of the area around Government Camp had burned and was just beginning to recover in the early 1900s.

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Detailed view of the historic loop highway where it climbs Laurel Hill to Government Camp

The kind staff at Camp Arrah Wanna allowed me to share these images, and hopefully they will satisfy your curiosity, as well. The camp is a non-profit operation, and not really equipped to handle tourists dropping by to admire old paintings! But if you or an organization you belong to is looking for a site for a retreat or gather, consider supporting Camp Arrah Wanna! It’s one of the real gems on the old highway circuit, and relies on event bookings to keep this beautiful slice of history alive.

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The historic Arrah Wanna Inn is now the main lodge at Camp Arrah Wanna (photo: Camp Arrah Wanna)

You can learn more about Camp Arrah Wanna and find contact information here:

Camp Arrah Wanna

24075 E. Arrah Wanna Boulevard

Welches, Oregon  97067 

I’m also able to share even higher resolution images of the painting than what I posted for this article. Please reach out to me if you’re interested.