Monday, October 26, 2015

Eagle Creek Trail Without the Crowds

(A note to our readers, September 6, 2017: at this time, the Eagle Creek Fire is raging in one of our family's favorite places. The fire was set in the canyon itself, and it is likely that everything in this post has been damaged. It may be months or years before the hike can be attempted again, but we will keep you posted regarding its accessibility. In the meantime, we will leave this post as a tribute to this unique and beautiful area.)

Arguably the most popular trail in the Columbia River Gorge, Eagle Creek is famous for its numerous waterfalls and steep canyon walls. Spring attracts crowds of photographers with its peak water flows and plentiful wildflowers. During the summer months, whole families of happy tourists wander the trail. Young couples hike up to Punchbowl Falls in swimsuits and flip flops to spend their day swimming and lying in the sun.
Metlako Falls

The Case family hikes Eagle Creek in the fall.

The waterfalls are at a fraction of their springtime glory. The wildflowers remain only as distant memories held in seedpods beside the trail. Gone are the happy families, the carefree lovers. The low-angled sun glows softly on towering canyon walls as the gentle creek chuckles along. Maple leaves drift onto the trail. The mellow air holds a tinge of sharpness as we snuggle into our sleeping bags for a long, luxurious post-equinox snooze with only the sound of water to keep us company.

The views on this hike, the massive basalt cliffs, the luxuriant foliage, and the numerous waterfalls along the way are almost ridiculously out of proportion to the short six-and-a-half mile hike to Twister Falls. This thirteen mile out-and-back could be done as a long day hike; the trail climbs fairly steadily, but it never becomes very steep. An overnight hike allows for frequent photo stops, though, and opportunities to just stop and absorb the beauty of this deep canyon.

Click here and scroll to the bottom of the page to find excellent driving directions to the trailhead; it can be a bit tricky to find your first time. Please note that parking near the camp host, as the page suggests, is not likely to be an option in the off-season when the campground is closed. Instead, park at the trailhead (this is generally not possible during the summer, but there is usually plenty of room in the fall). Do not leave anything of value in your vehicle. You will need a Northwest Forest Pass to park here, or else pay at the kiosk. Your first view of Eagle Creek is here as it rushes past the parking lot; this mountain-born stream will be the thread that traces the entire hike.
Likely pika country

At some point along the trail, you are likely to hear a sound like a stepped-on squeak toy emanating from a cliff or rock pile. You will have just heard a pika. These cute little rabbit relatives live in burrows among the rocks, where they store dried grasses for food during the winter. They are rarely seen, but they will let you know their whereabouts with their shrill whistle.

Loowit Falls
Tunnel Falls. Vertigo indeed.
Hike alongside the creek into woods, along slopes, and on shelves carved into cliffsides (use the cables as handholds; these trails can be deceptively slick, especially if there has been rain or fog). At 1.5 miles, Metlako Falls can be viewed from a short side trail. Walk a little further to find the trail down to Punchbowl Falls. While this is definitely worth a side trip, the trail is a bit steep in places (if you decide to leave your pack at the top, conceal it from passers-by; we once had our tent stolen when we left our packs here). Returning to the main trail, you will find another view of Punch Bowl from above.  A little over three miles in, watch for a viewpoint for Loowit Falls. Continue to High Bridge and cross the narrow chasm. Keep an eye out for partially-visible Skoonichuck Falls. Just past the bridge are a few campsites, and a little further along you will find some sites on a shelf above the creek. Fill out a free permit at the wilderness boundary just past the four-mile mark. Cross Four and a Half-Mile Bridge and watch for a few more campsites. At around five miles, you will notice a thin path on the left. Once a popular tie trail across Benson Plateau to Ruckle Creek Trail, this passage was badly damaged by fire several years ago and has not been reconstructed, though it lives on in many guidebooks. Stay on the main trail to pass behind 120-foot Tunnel Falls and you will begin to understand why this part of the trail is known as the Vertigo Mile. Hold onto the cable as you pass along cliffsides to Twister Falls, a unique double falls. The warm rocks at the top make a wonderful picnic stop on a sunny day. This is the last falls; the trail climbs away from Eagle Creek at this point. When you are ready to leave, return the way you came (it is also possible to continue on the trail as it heads uphill to Wahtum Lake).

Water purification break.
Because it is such a popular area, special rules apply here. No camping is allowed below High Bridge, and then it is restricted to established sites. Campfires are not allowed in this wilderness area.

Water is readily available from the creek, but be sure to purify it before drinking. Dogs must be on a leash, not because the rules say so (they do), but because too many dogs have plunged over the cliffs here (we once encountered a couple trying to locate their dog, not knowing how badly it had been hurt by the drop). For the same reason, it is crucial to keep small children close if you bring them on this trail. Eagle Creek has carved an extraordinary but deep canyon here; please enjoy it safely.

As you head back to Portland, consider a quick stop at ever-photogenic Multnomah Falls. This exit is frequently closed during the summer months because the parking lot is filled to capacity. You will find that the 620-foot falls is equally beautiful in the fall after the tourists have thinned out and left you your very own parking space.

Multnomah Falls
A particularly narrow section of Eagle Creek Canyon

Ladies and gentlemen, your trail...

Twister Falls

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Whalen Island and Sand Lake (or Not)

This lake is not a lake. There is not really much sand here, either. Tourists passing by on the north coast's Three Capes Scenic Route pull into the parking lot at low tide, glance at the expansive mudflats, and immediately turn around and leave. They never know what they've missed.

Sand Lake is actually a tidal estuary with a floor of sandy mud (perhaps "Mud Inlet" just didn't have the same ring to it). This area is comprised of 900 acres of water, beaches, dunes, wetlands, mudflats, fields, and trees. The "lake" itself wraps around the southern end of Whalen Island, which is, predictably, not really an island unless the tide is especially high. Nourished by the ocean, the water and mud teem with life. Seals, jellyfish, perch, salmon, and many other species swim here; we have even found a lone salp floating in the brine at high tide. The mud is home to numerous sand shrimp and clams. Crabs scuttle past lazy flounders on the bottom. Birds gather here in great variety, from tiny, pugnacious rufous hummingbirds to soaring bald eagles. Elegant white egrets gather here in the fall and roost in the trees at night. They and their blue heron cousins spend the day wading in the shallow water, feasting on the estuary's bounty. The woods and grasslands are home to a mixture of songbirds. Raccoons, bears, coyotes, and even cougar roam the woods and grasslands. This is not a place to glance at through your car windows and then drive away; this is a place to experience over time.

Spend a day, or, better yet, a few days. The Sand Lake Recreation Area lies on the north side of the "lake." This is a nice campground adjacent to a popular OHV area, which makes it a good option for groups with differing interests; those who don't enjoy ATVs in the dunes can experience the rest of the estuary. For the real Sand Lake, though, the campground of choice is Whalen Island County Campground. This peaceful spot on the southeast corner of the "island" offers simple accommodations, with sites on an open lawn as well as in the trees. Many of the sites are adjacent to the water, and all have easy water access. Facilities are minimal; there is a small, elderly restroom and an RV waste dump. People don't come here for the facilities, though; they come here for Sand Lake.

Perhaps the tide will be out when you arrive. Pitch your tent, or park your RV. Then set up a chair and watch the mudflats.

It begins slowly. Almost imperceptibly, the channel of water that runs through the mud seems a little fuller. Yes, it is growing larger. Then it gradually begins to spread across the ground; fingers of water feel their way along, meet, and grow larger. A gentle breeze drifts across the rising inlet, bringing the smells of water and salt and life. Still the water grows; sandbars shrink, then submerge. Small holes fill with water, then disappear. At last, the basin is full, mirroring the sky and dotted with bobbing gulls. The current rushes headlong under the little bridge, filling the many small channels that make up the northeastern part of the waterway. As evening comes in, lights from neighboring homes make shining paths on the surface of the water. After high tide, the whole process reverses itself; the fish retreat into the deeper channels, sand bars reappear and become mudflats again, and gulls find pickings along the newly-revealed beach.

If watching the tide go in and out is not your idea of excitement, there are other activities here, as well. Clamming and crabbing are popular, and fisherman often pump sand shrimp in the mudflats for use as bait. Fishing for salmon, perch, and flounder can be quite productive; the latter are pulled from pools left behind when the tide ebbs. Kayaking and canoeing are also popular, with tidal current and small waves to keep it interesting (do not go anywhere near the mouth, as paddlers have been grabbed and rolled out by sudden incoming breakers). During rare high tides, it is actually possible to circumnavigate Whalen Island, but it is advisable to take a GPS and go with someone who has circled it before. There are many false channels and the tidal window is about two hours before the water drops below the navigable level. This whole area is strongly tide-affected, so it is essential to know what the ocean is doing. Check the tides for the Nestucca Bay mouth; add about one hour and plan to be off of the water by then. Experienced paddlers will sense the change when the tide turns. Pay attention to how your boat feels to avoid being stranded in the mud or pulled toward the mouth. It is still possible to paddle for a while after the tide turns in the area near the county boat ramp, looking into the water for crabs and jellyfish.

Clay Myers State Natural Area lies to the north of Whalen Island Campground, sharing the same entrance road. This is a day use park with a restroom and picnic tables. Here you will find access to a hiking trail that wanders through the Whalen Island area, passing grasslands, meandering through trees, and tracing the edge of the inlet's beach. Bring your binoculars, as this part of the park is home to a wide variety of bird life. The loop trail is about a mile and a half and never very steep or rough. There are also accessible viewpoints in this area; in fact, the boat ramp parking lot is perfect for viewing Sand Lake, just be aware that there is a fee for parking here. Also be aware that high tides flood the entire parking lot, so park accordingly if tides are running high. On a related subject, when high tides are running particularly low it can be a challenge to find enough water to float a boat on, and mudflats predominate. Again, check tide predictions for the Nestucca Bay mouth.

To find Sand Lake, head north from Pacific City toward Tierra del Mar. Follow the road along the beach, through Tierra de Mar, and through a rural area. You will see the estuary on your left just before you turn into the park. From the north, head south on the Three Capes Route, or from Highway 101 turn westward on Sand Lake Road just north of the tiny town of Hemlock. Wind through woods and dunes to a left turn toward Sand Lake. The road to the Sand Lake Recreation Area comes first, with the Whalen Island turnoff further down the road.

This is not a place for a quick, efficient snapshot pause. Don't just pull in and turn around. Stop and explore Sand Lake. Discover the quiet beauty of this peaceful place.

And to conclude... the salp.