Friday, October 1, 2021

Finding Oregon's Roots II: Willamette Mission Park

Before the long-lost community of Champoeg was born, when the only white people in the present-day Willamette Valley were a few former French-Canadian fur trappers, Jason Lee arrived in the Oregon Country. Responding to requests for a Christian mission in this new territory, Jason and his team began a settlement beside the Willamette River in 1834, opening a school for local youth and establishing a small town, including a hospital, blacksmith shop, and chapel. By 1841, flooding and mosquitoes inspired the group to move eight miles south to Chemeketa Plain, later the city of Salem. Here they established a new settlement, including a school that would be later become Willamette University. For a while, Willamette Mission's disused buildings were used for shelter by pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail; that came to an end when the remains of the settlement were swept away by the great flood of 1861, which also wiped out the village of Wheatland across the river as well as Champoeg, the birthplace of Oregon's government. None of these communities would be rebuilt, but their history remains beside their common lifeline: the Willamette River.

Today, a 1300-acre park commemorates the mission and welcomes visitors to this fertile plain beside the Willamette. It is easy to see why Lee and his associates chose the site, with its proximity to the river and rich soil. Here you will find meadows, wetlands, forest, and working farmland, all within the park's borders. There are five miles of bike paths as well as a seasonal hiker-biker camp; this park is a highlight of the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway. The equestrian camp is equipped with stalls and picnic tables, and there are six miles of horse trails within the park. There is a disc golf course within a filbert grove (not something you see every day), a group camp, covered picnic areas, an off-leash dog area, and a boat launch. Kayaks can be launched from a trail near the Filbert Day-use Area, accessing the Willamette Water Trail, 187 miles of paddling, complete with campsites along the way (permits required).

Take Wheatland road if you would like to ride the ferry into the park; at this writing, cars are $2, motorcycles are $1, and pedestrians ride for free. Every ferry used at this crossing has been named Daniel Matheny, the name of the man who originally began ferry operations here in the 1850s; the current craft is a substantial improvement on the original wooden raft which was poled across the Willamette using human muscle. 

Anglers can access the river near the ferry, where there is parking with a good view of the river. Then  check out Mission Lake, which has its own role in the park's history. This long, thin lake is actually an oxbow: it once was part of the Willamette. During the great flood of 1861 the river changed course, leaving this landlocked section behind. Now there is an ADA-accessible dock next to a boat launch, and the lake is often stocked with trout by ODFW.

Near the Mission Lake dock stands the nation's largest black cottonwood tree, noted by a wooden sign. This tree stood beside the Willamette long before the white men came, and it witnessed the great flood that changed the course of the river.  A nearby walnut orchard makes this park a popular fall destination, and filberts are easily found, as well.

Willamette Mission Park is just a few miles off of I-5 north of Salem. Take the Brooks exit #263 and follow the signs through wide open farm land (the many hop fields are not a new thing; our photographer's great grandmother often reminisced about picking hops here as a girl). Watch for a modest sign next to a filbert orchard; turn left into the orchard and drive through the park's fields. Mission Lake is to the right, or go left to find the Filbert Day Use Area near the river. To find the ferry, bypass the park's main entrance and turn left onto Matheny Road (Click here for a park brochure with information and a map). Be aware, however, that regardless of which entrance you use, there is a $5 parking fee at Willamette Mission.

This unique park in the heart of the Willamette valley offers something for everyone, any time of the year. Bring your bike, your binoculars, your dog, your fishing pole, or a frisbee; plan to take a short hike or spend the whole day. Next time you're driving up I-5, pause to find a piece of Oregon's history alongside a river that helped to build our beautiful state.

Map of the 18-"hole" disk-golf course

Equestrian camp

Walnut orchard

Nation's largest black cottonwood
Mission Lake

Filbert grove

Wheatland Ferry

Hiker/Biker camp

Enjoy the park! And the walnuts! And the filberts!

Friday, August 6, 2021

A Pacific Crest Trail Day Hike: Herman Creek Pinnacles

At some hazy point in history, a landslide dragged some pieces of the Columbia River Gorge's famous cliffs downhill and left them sitting nearly upright on a hillside below. The resulting odd formations now lie beside the PCT above Cascade Locks. The Pinnacles may be easily visited on a day hike of about seven-and-a-half miles round trip, including a side path to Dry Creek Falls, which isn't dry but does fall.

During the hike to Herman Creek Pinnacles, you will see unique rock formations, imposing basalt cliffs, a variety of wildflowers, two waterfalls, and a great deal of poison oak. One thing you will NOT see, however, is Herman Creek, which runs somewhat east of this route. Carry water and wear sturdy boots; the trail is a bit rocky in places and climbs fairly steadily, though never steeply.

The usual starting point for this hike is the Bridge of the Gods Trailhead in Cascade Locks. To find the trailhead, drive as if you were going to cross over into Washington and look for a modest parking lot just before the bridge. This is a popular spot, and you may have to arrive early in the day to find a parking place or else leave your car in Cascade Locks and walk over. A Northwest Forest Pass is required at the parking lot.

Cross the road and begin walking on the PCT. When you come to a street, turn right under the overpass and walk to a small parking area. From here take the trail on the left, which is marked as the PCT (the trail on the right is the Gorge Trail).

You will soon see traces of the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire; this massively destructive conflagration appears to have hurried through here, merely scorching tree trunks and wiping out the undergrowth. Unlike many nearby areas, this part of the forest remains lush and alive despite its scars. Wildflowers flourish alongside bigleaf and vine maple saplings; the understory seems eager to refill the void. The trail travels in the shade of tall, resilient Douglas firs as it gradually climbs. After about a mile, turn right to briefly walk on a powerline access road and rejoin the trail where it re-enters the forest. This is a beautiful, rugged area of steep slopes and rock falls. Listen for the squeak-toy cry of pikas as you approach the rocky stretches; these chubby little mammals live in rock crevices, munching on vegetation and making hay to store for winter.

Cross the footbridge over Dry Creek (more on that later) at about two miles in. Continue on the PCT over gently rolling terrain. Watch for a view of the Columbia River and Stevenson, Washington with Table Mountain and Greenleaf Peak standing nearby. A bit further on you will see a small creekbed; watch on your right in this area to see the impressive basalt cliffs that make up the edge of the Benson Plateau. Continue until the Pinnacles come into view. A short side trail explores the three largest outcroppings, and a bit of scrambling offers outstanding views of the gorge, as well. Looking up at the nearby cliffs, it's easy to see where the Pinnacles came from. Continue briefly on the PCT to find several smaller formations tucked into the woods. Then walk for a few more minutes to see Pacific Crest Falls, where a slender creek spouts through a slit in a sheer rock face, then tumbles in a long cascade on its way to find the Columbia.

Turn back here and retrace your steps, watching for views and wildflowers you may have missed on your way up. When you recross Dry Creek on the footbridge, leave the trail and turn left on an old roadbed. Walk along near the lovely little creek, which is anything but dry, to find a 74-foot waterfall in a basalt amphitheater. Here in this lush, beautiful place you will find a clue to the creek's baffling name: at the base of the falls stand the remains of an old waterworks. In the 1930s, when Bonneville Dam was being built, this creek was rerouted to provide water for the town of Cascade Locks. Part of the long-disused structure is now a convenient bridge over the creek for those wishing to photograph the falls (or stand underneath).

Return to the PCT and walk back to your car, perhaps taking time to explore the 1,856-foot-long steel cantilever Bridge of the Gods. Back in town, if you need an excuse to indulge in a generous cone of extra-creamy soft serve, stop by our favorite drive-in (look for the line out front) and relax after your hike. Maybe we'll see you there!

Distant mountains visible on the Washington side

Not Herman Creek. Bridge over Dry Creek.

Look for views and listen for pikas along this stretch of trail

Table Mountain and Stevenson, Washington
Not Herman Creek. This one's unnamed. Feel free to name it.
First view of the pinnacles

The pinnacles and Benson Plateau
Small pinnacle on the far side of a nearby rocky hill. Please exercise caution if you climb
the hill, as the rocks are steep and loose. This photographer didn't make it to the top. No
one is questioning your bravery. People love you.
Small pinnacles along the PCT
Not Herman Creek. Pacific Crest Falls.
Near the falls
Inside Out Flower and a candid ant
Back over the Dry Creek Bridge

Old roadbed near the falls

Dry Creek. Not to the falls yet. Still not Herman Creek.

Dry Creek Falls and old waterworks