Sunday, January 6, 2019

A Winter Warmup: Peavey Arboretum and the McDonald -Dunn Forest

Well, it's that time of year again. The holidays are over. Solstice has passed, but even the most intent of observers can't see the days getting any longer. Trails are covered in snow or mud. The winter months stretch out ahead of us, long, cold, and bleak. But studies have shown that we need to be outdoors in the winter months; even on cloudy days, natural daylight is beneficial for our circadian rhythms and emotional well-being. And so, as Oregonians will, we find ways to get outside, come rain, snow, or graupel (look it up). We will don our wool and microfiber, pull on our waterproof boots, and find somewhere to go.

Those who live in the heart of the Willamette Valley know exactly where to go: the McDonald-Dunn Forest. Covering over 11,000 acres, this ridge in the foothills of the Coast Range contains old-growth forests, oak groves, logged areas, burned areas, and a managed arboretum. If you have kids, a dog, a mountain bike, hiking boots, a horse, or a camera, this place is a great destination. If you have an interest in history, trees, wildlife, or Oregon native plants, there is something for you here.

To find the forest, head north out of Corvallis on 99W (Pacific Highway West) through the community of Lewisburg. Watch on the left for NW Arboretum Road. Be alert; the signage is modest but adequate. Follow signs to the main trailhead parking area.

Civilian Conservation Corps Sign Shop
Firefighter Memorial Picnic Shelter
OSU "Post Farm"
Park next to Peavey Arboretum. Long ago, this area was a campground for the local Luckiamute people. By the time it was acquired by the Oregon Agricultural College in 1924, the Arboretum's initial 80 acres had already been logged. A tree seedling nursery was established in 1925, and reforestation was begun in 1926. Note the large, grey building that served as a sign-making shop for the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. At one time the CCC had 39 buildings in this forest with workers focused on road building and tree planting; however, the wooden buildings were not meant to be permanent. A rare survivor, the sign shop remains a reminder of the long, harsh years of the Great Depression. Below the shop is a small pond. Perched on the hill above it you will find the Firefighter Memorial, a large, airy shelter just begging for a picnic. The open area here is a great place for kids to burn off some excess energy. This is arguably the heart of the forest, with a maze of trails wandering among the clearly-labelled specimen trees. You will find many native species here growing alongside trees from around the world. Many of the more significant trees are marked on the trail map; click here for the common and scientific names of species that may be found. While at the northern end of the Arboretum, look past a small parking lot to find the "post farm," a sort of artificial, decapitated forest where ongoing tests help determine the best ways of preserving wooden poles; in fact, the entire McDonald-Dunn Forest is now managed by the OSU Forestry Department as a teaching and research laboratory.

The Arboretum makes a lovely stop along the way, and walking its trails may be all it takes to stave off the winter doldrums. If a longer hike or horse or bike ride is what you're craving, though, there are many options. Click here for a detailed and occasionally baffling map of all the trails and roads in the forest, and here for a brief description of some of the trails. With so many options, it's easy to customize an outing.

Forestry Club Cabin
Cronemiller Lake
Hikers will find all of the trails and roads open to them, although it is requested that they avoid muddy trails to help avoid erosion. This is not really a problem, though, as many of the pathways are graveled and all are very well maintained. An easy hike up the CFRIP or Forest Discovery Trail (or shortcut up Road 500) leads to the Forestry Club Cabin, which burned in 1949 and was rebuilt in 1950. Look alongside the cabin for a contraption known as "big wheels" or "high wheels." Back when horses were used for logging, a log would be fastened to the bottom of the axle and a horse team would drag it out of the woods. Walk a bit further to find one-acre Cronemiller Lake. Built by the CCC for irrigation purposes, the lake is now also used by OSU's Logging Sports Team. Notice the small logging arena nearby. Continue on the Section 36 Trail (also constructed by the CCC) to make a loop or to meet up with the Powder House Trail, which passes the Cap House used by the CCC to store explosives used in logging and road-building. The nearby burn allows for beautiful views over a small valley. Combine the loop with other trails for a longer hike, or shortcut back on the road. This is true western Oregon forest, with a dense mix of conifers, maples, oaks, and the occasional red, sinuous trunk of a madrone. Thick, brushy understory alternates with great carpets of sword fern. Plan to return in the spring to find wildflowers under the soaring canopy.

Not interested in a long hike? Take the Woodland Trail for a half-mile exploration of the forest community. To learn more about forest management, check out the Intensive Management Trail, a signed interpretive path that explains forest practices. Whatever route you follow, though, be on the lookout for muddy, happy dogs, many of which will be off leash and bounding delightedly along the trail.

While many of the hiking trails are closed to equestrians, several are open during much of the year, and of course the roads make excellent horse routes. The map shows horse routes in red, as well as the network of forest roads. Note that there is horse parking with excellent access at the Sulfur Creek Trailhead off of Soap Creek Road. While riding through the forest, look down into the gullies and imagine the difficulty of logging here with only a horse team for power.

The forest is also a year-round destination for mountain bikers. Refer to the map for the trails marked in red and purple; yellow trails are also open to cyclists during part of the year. Even when trails are closed, though, the roads beckon. Sweeping along the slopes, curling and winding among the trees, these sparsely-traveled gravel roads and spurs can keep you pedaling all day long under the arching limbs of the forest. This site is a forum for singletrack cyclists where enthusiasts can post updated trail conditions. Click here for an excellent website for those who must limit their singletrack these days (possibly as a result of singletrack; gravity happens!). Either way, the Corvallis area is known for being bike-friendly, and you will likely find that you're not the only one out here on two wheels.

When winter feels like it may never end, head for the central valley and sample some of the 23 miles of trails and 100 miles of roads in the McDonald-Dunn forest. Bring a rain coat, of course, and perhaps a picnic. Walk the trails and promise yourself more visits as the year turns: visits to see the spring wildflowers, the lush summer greenery, and the fall colors. But for now, build that cardio for next summer's adventures while you take in 11,000 acres of western Oregon as it was, as it is, and, thanks to OSU, as it will be.

Firefighter Memorial

The author peeks inside the CCC Sign Shop

The old CCC caphouse
New growth in the burned area
An overlook near the caphouse. Note the madrone tree to the left.

The "big wheel"

Cronemiller Lake

Logging arena

Pacific Redwood

Grove of Sequoia trees
Happy 2019, we'll see you out there!


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