Friday, January 31, 2020

Palisade Falls

Next up we're paying a visit to one of the Columbia Gorge's most seen but least visited waterfalls. If you're barreling along on I-84, as you pass the Crown Point area you might notice a waterfall tumbling down a cliff immediately east of the Vista House (unless it's late summer, when it usually dries up). That waterfall apparently doesn't have an official USGS-approved name, but often goes by "Palisade Falls", and is sometimes called "Crown Point Falls" for obvious reasons.

Until quite recently I thought Palisade Falls was completely inaccessible. There's no freeway exit for it like there is for Multnomah Falls. Nor is there a trail down to the top of the falls from the adjacent Vista House or anywhere nearby, and in fact the whole area above the falls is closed to all entry, with very stern but occasionally ignored No Trespassing signs seemingly every few feet. There also isn't a side road there, or an official trail that officially goes there, and I had never seen any photos of it up close, or even read about anyone going there. The only thing near the base of the falls is a railroad line, and it hasn't had an Amtrak route since 1997 when the Pioneer was discontinued, so I figured the only way to get a closer look would be to switch careers, join the Union Pacific Railroad, eventually get assigned to runs through the Gorge (which I imagine requires lots of seniority), and then catch occasional blurry glimpses of it while whooshing past at very-fast-by-USA-standards speeds.

A few weeks ago I was searching for something unrelated (and I don't recall what it was now) and ran across a 2016 OregonHikers forum thread with a couple of photos from right at the base of the falls, looking up. I'd wondered about this roughly since I was old enough to read a map, so it was a foregone conclusion that I was going to do whatever they did and go see for myself.

So the deal is that there is a trail there, or most of the way there. But it doesn't start where you'd think, and there is absolutely zero signage or any other indication that it goes anywhere interesting. If you're doing the standard tourist route along the old Columbia River Highway, Portland Womens Forum State Park is the place you stop for 5-10 minutes and take photos of the Vista House and the gorge, facing east. While you're doing that, directly behind you there's a locked gate, and behind it a gravel road meanders down toward the river. A trail detours around the gate, but no signs indicate where the trail goes, what it's called, or why you might want to go that direction, and I imagine upwards of 99.9% of visitors just ignore the whole thing. Turns out this is a very old road (by non-indigenous Pacific Northwest standards), connecting the park area (which then hosted the Chanticleer Inn restaurant) with the rail line down by the river; OregonHikers has a field guide page about the hike, calling it the "Rooster Rock Wagon Road". I gather it also went by "Chanticleer Point Wagon Road", I suppose based on which direction you were wagoning. It seems that passenger trains would let you off at a long-vanished station down below, and a horse-drawn wagon (or eventually a car) would ferry you up the hill for an amazing view and a chicken dinner. I'm going to guess the view was priced into the chicken dinner, because some things never change in the tourist business.

I'm not sure when the rail stop was discontinued, but the Chanticleer Inn burned in 1930 and was never rebuilt, which would have eliminated the road's main reason for being. Still, the mostly-disused road wasn't officially closed off until the late 1980s. (I have a very vague recollection of noticing when the gate went in, and not realizing there was a road there until that point.) In the intervening time, the road was a popular spot if you needed to dump a stolen car or a safe you'd just cracked, and remnants survive off to the sides of the old road, from the body of a 1949 Studebaker to the dashboard of a 70s Porsche 911. A few are visible from the road, while others require side trips; I wasn't there for the vintage auto/true crime history (and was kind of creeped out by it, to be honest), so this photoset is not a comprehensive catalog of everything that's down there. Another OregonHikers thread has photos of several of the cars and two safes, for anyone who's curious about that particular angle on the place.

What I do have are photos of the road/trail (since probably most people have never seen it), along with another unnamed waterfall you'll encounter on the way down & back. There are a few views of the Vista House around the top end of the trail, and views looking up at Crown Point and Chanticleer Point from the bottom of the trail, and a mysterious (and fortunately open) gate part of the way down, and eventually the trail peters out at the railroad tracks, where you're greeted by an ambiguous hardware-store-grade "No Trespassing" sign, and below it a painting of Portland's Steel Bridge painted on (I think) scrap metal, possibly from one of the junked cars uphill from here. The two seemed to be guarding a side trail to the west that I wouldn't have noticed otherwise; I heeded what I figured the sign was advising me about and didn't investigate further. On the far side of the tracks and just west of where the trail ends, a railroad service road covers the short distance over to I-84 -- I think, I didn't go any further in that direction -- and from there you can presumably make your way to the obscure & little-used Young Creek Trailhead along one of the Rooster Rock offramps. A page at Recreating the HCRH indicates the road we're on continued along to a salmon cannery near Rooster Rock before the freeway came along, and a WyEast Blog post has a few 19th century photos of the area, one of which shows Palisade Falls flowing into idyllic Echo Bay (now separated from the river by I-84 and renamed "Mirror Lake").

Anyway, here we are at the end of the trail, but there's no waterfall in sight, nor are there any obvious eastbound trails with signs saying "This way to the waterfall". Now what? Now you parallel the railroad tracks heading east for a bit, maybe 1000 feet to 1/4 mile or so. Not on the tracks, obviously, and further away is better, obviously, and what it boils down to is that I really don't want to be responsible for anyone getting smooshed by a train or tasered by security guards or whatever, so let's agree that the last leg of the journey involves dense GPS-jamming fog, a bit of handwaving, and a conveniently located personal jetpack that may or may not still be there when you visit.

Ok, so having landed next to the falls and set the jetpack aside to cool off for a bit, we can finally get a good look at the waterfall. You soon realize it's just a small stream that sort of burbles its way down the cliff face, and the steep V-shaped ravine above the falls (the off-limits No Trespassing area I mentioned) extends most of the way down from Crown Point so the falls aren't actually that tall either. Still, it's a pleasant spot, and -- more to the point -- it's a pleasant spot that nobody you know has ever been to (unless they're semi-adventurous and have a very specific hobby we'll get to in a moment), so by visiting you can obtain valuable Internet Points just like I'm doing right now. Note however that if you're doing this for Instagram, mere nature photos without people in them don't cut it anymore (ask me how I know this). As I understand it, full IG Internet Points are only awarded if you bust out some advanced yoga poses in front of the falls, or pose with an absurdly large gun, or maybe hike the whole way in a fursuit, or ideally all of the above simultaneously, while name dropping a long list of your brand endorsements and Patreon patrons. I'm not saying any of that is wrong, exactly, except for the gun part; it just seems like a lot of extra trouble to go to for a few more Internet Points, and if I was in that position it would quickly start to feel like a job, and a poorly paid one at that, with fairly bizarre hours and no benefits.

Enjoy the solitude and obscurity while you can, though; Palisade Falls may be less of a secret secluded spot someday, if current plans pan out. The Oregon State Parks Department adopted a new Master Plan for its Columbia Gorge holdings in 2015, and they have big plans for the old road. This is not the same thing as having money, blueprints, signed contracts, and a project schedule, but it's a start, I suppose. So the goal is to have an official route between Rooster Rock & the Portland Womens Forum viewpoint, based on the current route at least most of the way. They've broken it down into phases, phase 1 being official-ifying the road as far as the railroad tracks. It isn't clear what this would involve beyond putting up some signage and maybe a fence to keep people away from the rail line. Phase 2, which the plan implies is a distant-future, pie-in-the-sky vision, involves crossing the rail line in a manner acceptable to the railroad, and then onward to Rooster Rock. This is a separate phase because making railroads happy is expensive, and railroads hold all the cards thanks to 19th century federal laws. So the state will need a bridge over the tracks, tall enough to accommodate double or triple-stacked trains, or however tall the railroad supposes a future train might be someday, and enclosed so people can't throw anything onto the tracks. And the taller the bridge is, the more expensive it will be to meet ADA accessibility requirements, and on top of that there will be design requirements to satisfy due to being in a National Scenic Area, so it can't be ugly. To be clear, I am not arguing against any of these requirements, just pointing out there is a great deal of difference between just crossing railroad tracks, and doing so officially. Furthermore, the conceptual route maps in the master plan show the trail heading directly north to Rooster Rock after crossing the tracks, rather than east to the existing overpass at the Rooster Rock freeway exit. So this would seem to require a new pedestrian bridge over the interstate as well, though the plan doesn't mention this little detail. If I had to guess how this plays out eventually, I'd guess they'll route the trail over to the freeway exit, and build it in conjunction with replacing the existing 1950s or 1960s-era overpass (which is is bound to need replacing eventually, as nature bats last against midcentury rebar construction), so that part piggybacks on a freeway project, since there will always money for freeway projects.

The plan doesn't mention Palisade Falls at all, but it seems like the obvious candidate if you want the phase 1 trail to actually go somewhere, instead of just dead-ending at railroad tracks. I'm not the right type of engineer to be 100% certain of this, but it seems like there ought to be just enough space between the tracks and cliffs to build a nice official trail that isn't constantly pelted with falling rocks and also doesn't anger the gods railroad barons. It might even be possible to extend the trail around the far side of Crown Point and end up at Latourell Falls or points east from there. So that's suggestion #1. Suggestion #2 is that if you're rehabbing an old road, which is much wider than the typical Gorge trail, it would make sense to allow bikes on it, and ideally make sure it's usable by emergency vehicles. That last part might be my ongoing anxiety in the wake of the Eagle Creek fire, along with the global climate generally trending in a pro-fire direction.

Suggestion #3 is to remove the old cars. This may be an unpopular idea and I fully admit my personal biases here as a 1980s teenager, if you'll permit me to digress for a paragraph or so. Adults (including newly-respectable boomers) were absolutely convinced we were the coming doom of all that was good in the world. In particular, they were terrified of us turning 16 and semi-learning to drive, and inevitably denting the fenders of their precious BMWs. So we were made to watch roughly every single gory highway safety film ever made, including vintage pre-seatbelt ones with cars like the ones here. At least one of them was accompanied by a quadriplegic guest speaker whose message boiled down to "See? This is what happens if you ever drive drunk even once.", and who described his life-altering accident in excruciating detail. I had nightmares about it for weeks, and occasionally still do. I think we may have gotten an extra dose of vehicular doom awareness because my high school had a lot of rich kids (I was very much not one of them), some of them very much in the Brett Kavanaugh mold. I recall at least one instance where a classmate was given a Porsche for his 16th birthday by his parents, who then promptly decamped to their place in Palm Springs for the winter, leaving him to his own devices for several months. Their idea of responsible parenting involved getting him a Porsche 912, a short-lived model that looked exactly like a 911 but had an underpowered 4 cylinder engine and was slightly cheaper. Which I imagine meant everyone wanted to drag race you at stoplights, and you always lost. I suppose the school focused on the body horror angle because daddy's money and connections could make any legal unpleasantness go away, but daddy can't change the laws of physics or limitations of modern medicine. In short, I would be happier without the crashed vintage cars than with them, and thanks for listening.

Um, anyway, switching topics entirely, I'd mentioned earlier that there was one particular reason that your adventurous, outdoorsy friends might have been to Palisade Falls before. Every so often, not every winter but at least once every few years, the Gorge gets a serious cold snap, lasting from a few days to a few weeks. If it lasts long enough, waterfalls start freezing over, starting with the lower-volume ones like Palisade Falls where water runs down the rock face instead of launching outward from it. When this blessed event happens, the local ice climbing community (your more-outdoorsy-than-thou friend included) converges on the Gorge in a matter of nanoseconds, and the vertical wall of ice at Palisade Falls becomes the ice climbing route known as "Crown Jewel". Crown Jewel is popular due to its (relatively) moderate difficulty and its location as one of the closest ice climbing spots near Portland. I have never tried their sport, and let's be honest here, as a late-40s person without midlife crisis inclinations it's sort of unlikely I'll give it a try in the future. I do check up on them now and then because their geography of the Gorge is very different from anyone else's. Minor seasonal waterfalls that often don't even have official names become the, uh, crown jewels of their sport, like "Ainsworth Left" a few miles east of here in Ainsworth State Park, which is apparently so difficult that it was first climbed successfully in 2009 [???], and which is an otherwise unremarkable-by-Gorge-standards 700' cliff face the other 96% of the time when it isn't frozen.

In any case, here's a 2013 trip report with nice photos taken part of the way up the climb. One thing it mentions in passing, at the bottom of the post, is how to get to the falls during ice climbing season. I haven't seen any accounts about parking up above and hiking down; everyone parks at the Rooster Rock exit and heads directly to the frozen waterfall from there, and the most direct seasonal route involves hoofing it across frozen Mirror Lake. Which I suppose is something that doesn't worry you greatly if you're about to climb a frozen (and just barely frozen) waterfall that might "delaminate" (i.e. pop right off the rock face, taking you along for the ride) any minute. Another trip report from the same winter grumbles about being impeded by annoying stoners while trying to climb the falls. A Mazamas blog post from 2017 has mini trip reports from a few places around the gorge during a brief cold snap, Crown Jewel not included this time. And a 2014 OPB News piece speculates about what climate change means for the local ice climbing scene. (Spoiler: Warmer means less ice, and for ice-based sports this is a bad thing.). And finally, a mostly-unrelated Travel Oregon post that came up while searching the interwebs for "columbia gorge ice climbing". The author climbed Mt. Hood (where there was a great deal of ice), and went hiking in the Gorge the following day, thus satisfying the literal search terms if not the intent behind them. In any case, the post includes a lot of great photos he took along the way, so I figured I'd pass the link along even if it has nothing to do with the rest of this post. And with that, we're done here. I usually wrap these things up with a bit of is-it-worth-doing advice, but I'm not sure what to say this time. It was worth it to me as I finally got to satisfy a longstanding point of curiosity, but if you're coming into this cold it may not be quite as interesting. It does have one advantage in that it's a rare close-to-Portland trail that isn't swarmed with tourists during all daylight hours year-round, and a nice thing about having an obscure blog almost nobody reads is that I'm free to write about it without immediately ruining the place.