Monday, September 19, 2016

Fishing in Second Prairie: Trillium Lake Then and Now

Trillium Lake's beauty and proximity to the Portland metropolitan area make it a highly popular destination for day trips and overnight camping. This 65-acre body of water is the foreground of one the most iconic views of Mt. Hood; in fact, this scene has graced the packaging of a popular line of backpacking food for many years. At times the mountain is cloaked in clouds and wind ruffles the water, but when conditions are favorable anyone can capture the image of Mt. Hood reflected in the lake's peaceful mirror. As evening approaches, photographers line up their tripods near the day-use area, hoping to catch a perfect shot as the sun sets and the lights of Timberline Lodge appear on the mountainside.

This view is accessible to anyone, as it is best seen from the dam on the south end of the lake. A short, paved road runs across the small dam, with parking at one end (day use fee required). The lake is frequently stocked with rainbow trout, and easy access from the dam and fishing pier make this a great place to fish with kids. There are two boat ramps for non-motorized craft as well as a small beach at the day-use area for launching kayaks and canoes. Although the lake is relatively small, it's fun to explore, especially the wetlands at the north end. Be prepared for gusty mountain winds, especially in the afternoon.

If the fishing disappoints and the wind is chilly, take a 2-mile hike around the lake. This is a great hike for kids, as it is mostly level and has a series of fun catwalks through the marsh. While it is billed as barrier-free, there are some narrow spots in the trail as well as loose boards in the catwalks, so it is not universally accessible. Most people should be able to do the circuit of the lake, though, and the peaceful wetlands host a variety of songbirds and hawks.

Camping spots are highly sought after here. Most of the campground sites can be reserved ahead, and weekends generally find them full. There are a few tent sites near the dam (recommended if your plans include fishing or photography), but they are also filled during most weekends and are not as carefully monitored (in other words, you may not get much sleep if partiers come in). The campground officially closes Oct. 1, but as with many of the campgrounds in this area, if you can park legally and carry in your gear, you will be allowed to stay (please act responsibly and pack out your own garbage so that this rule will remain in place). Dispersed camping is available at a few spots on the southwest side of the lake (accessed from the road as it continues past the dam). If you don't need to be right by the lake, there are dispersed spots near where the access road branches; the open area is often used for late-night parties, but there are some small sites nearby that are a bit quieter.

This beautiful lake has only existed since 1960. Before the installation of a dam on Mud Creek, this was a mountainside meadow. Pioneers heading west on the Barlow Road knew it as Second Prairie, a good place to stop and rest hungry livestock after their long climb into the Cascades. The grueling drop down Laurel Hill lay before them; they would need all of their resources to make it to their goal, the fertile Willamette Valley. The meadow may be under water now, but much of the area's history remains to be discovered.

Drive Highway 26 past Government Camp and watch for the Trillium Lake SnoPark on your right (come snowfall, this gate is closed for the winter and the only access is by skis or snowshoes). One hundred yards down the paved lake road, there is a small, rough pullout for one car (or walk down from the parking area). Look for a thin path up the embankment on the right. Here you will find a trace of the Barlow Road. Worn down by wagon wheels, the original roadbed can still be followed, but it is cluttered by downed trees and very marshy in places. Across the paved road, the trace is fainter and ends under the edge of the parking lot.

Continue driving toward Trillium Lake. Soon you will come to a Y, with the left branch leading to the lake. Keep right through the dispersed camping area to find Summit Meadow ("Summit Prairie" to the pioneers, a welcome rest stop). The gravel road is prone to potholes, but the view of Mt. Hood over the meadow is worth it. This is a marshy area, and the wagons crossed the meadow on "corduroy" roads made of logs. As you begin to re-enter the trees, watch for a tiny cemetery on your left. On your right you will see the remains of the clearing where Perry Vickers, a tollgate keeper, built his cabin. Campers in the early years of the last century carved their initials on the boulders here, and they are still visible today.

Keep straight at all intersections to find Still Creek Campground, a small, out-of-the-way spot with private sites tucked into the forest. Follow the campground loop until you see a large sign announcing "Picnicking," which is somewhat odd since there is no picnic area here. What you will find is a wide wooden bridge leading to more of the Barlow Road. Wander side trails near the creek to find the remains of Swim, a popular resort in the 1920s and early 1930s. Rubble from old foundations hides in the trees, as well as the walls of the old pool.

Back on the Barlow Trail, follow the wagon ruts toward Government Camp. This section of the trail (BarlowTrail #601A) is clear and easy to follow, and at 0.6 mile each way it makes a good hike for kids. Back at Still Creek Campground, drive north on Still Creek Campground Road for 1/3 of a mile to return to Highway 26. For an accessible glimpse of the wagon road, drive to where this section ends at a Highway Department parking lot and Forest Service compound; this is across from the east access to Government Camp, near the elevation sign. Park beside the Forest Service cabins and look near the "gas house" for the trail.

Trillium Lake lies like a jewel in this microcosm of Oregon's past. Self-contained RVs park beside a lake where starving, trail-weary cattle once fed. Carefree tourists reel fish into plastic canoes. Nearby, depression-era vacationers walked down the Barlow Road to soak in Swim's mineral waters. Beside the meadow, Perry Vickers chopped down trees to build a roadway for tired pioneer wagons. In 1845, Sam Barlow hurried his plucky family through, searching for a passage as winter blustered in. Before that, Native Americans developed trails and recounted legends of the eruption of Wy'East. Through it all the mountain has watched, snow-capped and solemn, older than history.

Although faint, it is still possible to make out initials carved into rocks over a century ago. Find these near Summit Meadow.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Sleeping With the Elk: Elk Meadows and Gnarl Ridge

On the southeastern shoulder of Mt. Hood sprawls a luxuriant alpine meadow. Boggy and fertile, this open field hosts an amazing array of wildflowers after snowmelt, but during autumn the flowers remain as curious pods and the bright green of the grass has mellowed. The evening sun slants low against the glacier-clad peak and innumerable small creeks serenade the evening with their tiny voices. This is Elk Meadow, a good day-hike goal and a perfect overnight spot, with a possible side trip to Gnarl Ridge and the Timberline Trail.

The trailhead is easy to access from Portland; drive Highway 26 up Mt. Hood, then take OR 35 north for 7.8 miles to a turnoff on your left. A decent gravel road leads a short distance to a parking area. There are restrooms here during the busy season, and a marshy area across the road hosts a variety of wildflowers during summer (look for spires of tiny, white rein orchids). There was once a campground in the trees behind the parking area, and decaying picnic tables still hide amongst the bushes. Please note that a Northwest Forest Pass or a day-use fee is required here.

Several trails can be accessed here, including a side trip to Sahalie and Umbrella Falls. Take the Elk Meadows Trail into the forest and gradually begin the three-mile climb. About one mile in, you will encounter energetic Newton Creek. This creek is not to be trifled with; we once nearly lost our dog crossing it during a high flow. Look upstream and see the canyon it has carved (Newton Creek Trail follows this canyon to meet up with the Timberline Trail). Downstream, the creek has taken out an entire campground. Be aware that flows are often higher in the afternoon than they are in the morning due to snow melting during the day. Unfasten the hip belt and sternum strap on your pack and look for a makeshift log or rock crossing, if available. This website has good information on crossing mountain streams safely.

Once safely across the creek, look for the trail on the other side; this is often marked with rock cairns. The rest of the trail climbs steeply at times, but is otherwise moderately easy. There are several intersections, but they are clearly marked. The trail splits as you near the meadow; keep to the right and walk along the edge of the woods. Camping in the meadow itself is prohibited, but there are many sites tucked into the trees, some of which have amazing views of the mountain's peak.

As you explore the meadow, you will discover that it is flowing with icy-cold water. Glacial melt trickles everywhere in thin rivulets, and the soil remains soft and moist in many areas throughout the summer. Mt. Hood dominates the skyline, and as evening approaches it seems that cold air rolls downward from the glacier and rises from the water underfoot.

On  our last trip, we snuggled deep into our sleeping bags for a long autumn night under the chilly stars. Then, during some pitch-black hour, we heard it. A shrill whistle, eerie, almost mechanical-sounding. It grew into a squeal and rose, louder and louder, into a guttural roar. It was immediately answered from another direction. Bull elk, challenging each other while we lay on the ground in our tiny, thin tent. They bugled throughout the night. At times, whole herds of hooves pounded the trail just a few feet away. All that remained of them in the morning light was a multitude of hoofprints. Now we know how the meadow got its name.

This hike makes a relatively easy overnight trip, but there are several options for further exploration. Gnarl Ridge extends total hiking to almost nine miles and rewards hikers with stunning, up-close mountain views. Watch for the trail to your left two miles in, or look for the Gnarl Ridge Tie Trail on the other side of the meadow. Climb until you meet the Timberline Trail and turn right. After another mile or so you will find yourself on rugged Gnarl Ridge, looking into the canyon of Newton Creek under the shadow of Hood's peak. There is room for the hardy to camp where a stone shelter once stood, but be sure to bring water. If you have trouble pounding your tent stakes into the rocky ground, fasten sticks to the corners of your tent, then pile rocks on the sticks.

Either return to Elk Meadows the way you came, or retrace your steps on the Timberline Trail and take the Newton Creek Trail to make a loop. Be aware that the creek crossing can be difficult; use caution.

This is one of the best hikes in Oregon for scenery per miles hiked, but it is a wilderness hike, so go prepared for conditions. Gnarl Ridge stands at over 6500', and Elk Meadows is over 5000'. Snow is a possibility at any time of the year. Take plenty of warm clothing. Wear sturdy boots. And if you see something that looks like an elk trail, pitch your tent off to one side.