Friday, May 28, 2021

Cruiser Falls

Ok, time for another installment in our now-unseasonal tour of seasonal Columbia Gorge waterfalls. This time we're visiting one I tracked down along the old Columbia River Highway, about midway between Latourell Falls and Shepperds Dell, on a long stretch where the highway runs right along the base of a long row of bluffs averaging maybe 100' high, while the north/downslope side features a few farms and assorted houses. During the wet part of the year, every few dozen to hundred feet or so, a small seasonal creek tumbles over the bluff, forming a small waterfall; as far as I can tell nobody has ever bothered to make a list of these, or dream up names for any of them, or the creeks they're on. If any of you were following this weird little blog back in 2014 you might recall a post I did about one of the more prominent seasonal falls in this area -- albeit with photos I took in 2011, because some things never change around here. (Google Maps has recently started calling that particular one "Huerta Falls" for some unknown reason, which I guess is sort of an exception to the general absence of names.) It's not that the area is boring exactly, but for almost everyboy it's just a stretch of scenery you drive through on your way to one of the major visitor attractions, someplace that has an official National Scenic Area sign.

If you've been to this humble corner of the interwebs before, you might have guessed that the word 'almost' was the operative part of the last sentence, and you would be right again. While I was putting together last January's Palisade Falls post, I came to realize that a.) "ice climbing" is a real sport that exists, b.) when the Gorge freezes (which is increasingly rare, because climate), Palisade Falls is kind of a big deal in that community, and c.) in general, many of the, uh, hottest ice climbing spots are minor or seasonal waterfalls that largely get ignored when they aren't frozen. That sounded directly relevant to my interests, so I filed it away as something to investigate further during the next wet season. Then I spent the intervening months looking for places where I could get outside without meeting a single other human being or any of the microbial nasties they might be superspreading, and also without buying a massive 4WD vehicle and driving 200 miles past the back of beyond, and then being stuck with said vehicle the rest of the year too, fetching groceries and so forth at 4 miles per gallon while bystanders sneer and wonder what I'm compensating for. It occurred to me that tracking a few of these falls down in an unfrozen state would fit my requirements nicely, while also allowing me to once again write about an obscure thing nobody's ever heard of, and land a top search engine result for a thing that probably nobody will ever search for. The problem was that I didn't have a list of these very obscure spots, because obscure, nor did I have any idea where to find such a list if one existed.

I eventually came to realize that the canonical guide to local places that freeze in just the right way is a chapter in Tim Olson's Northwest Oregon Rock, one of a series of Northwest climbing guidebooks. The book's companion website has sort of an overview of the subject here, but most of the relevant info isn't available anywhere online, so I went ahead and bought the book. I'm not actually planning on dangling off any overhanging cliffs -- icy or otherwise -- by my fingertips anytime soon, unless the only alternatives are even worse. But the author did a great deal of that as part of researching the book, so sending a little business his way seemed only fair.

So, per the book's "Columbia Gorge Ice" chapter, the waterfall shown above doubles as a climbing route called "Cruiser" when it freezes. Which I gather is a common climbing term for something that's (relatively) straightforward and nontechnical that can be climbed quickly. Having searched high and low, this appears to be the only name anyone has ever given it. The point of all of this is that I needed a title for this post, so I figured the falls needed a nickname, so here's a new rule of thumb I dreamed up: If it needs a name and all it has is the nickname "Foo" from when it freezes, or dries up, or picked up a name from some other very niche reason, it can go by "Foo Falls". As in, the falls that become "Foo" when they freeze or dry up or whatever. So "Cruiser Falls" it is, I guess. At least it's better than "seasonal falls, columbia gorge", which is what I titled the 2014 post. Which was accurate, but as a general naming scheme it scaled up rather poorly.

Getting to Cruiser Falls is not complicated. The only place to park nearby is a mysteriously large parking lot on the westbound side of the highway, almost directly across from Huerta Falls (a.k.a. "Water Heater" as the ice climbing folks call it -- look for the rusty tank at the base) There are no signs explaining what this parking lot is for, or why you might want to park there. If you look closely a small unofficial sign calls it "Oasis", which is a name but not an explanation. It kind of looks like a trailhead parking lot, but without any trails that start there, official or otherwise. Per a page at Recreating the HCRH, it turns out that's not what it is at all, and it's actually restaurant parking for a long-departed restaurant; the page includes an old photo of the building, which went by a couple of names in its day including "The Dell" and "The White Elephant". At one point decades ago there were a lot of little roadside cafes like this along the old highway, but I gather they generally either went out of business after I-84 opened, or were purchased and torn down as eyesores, in an effort to make the old highway look more remote and natural. Which, I understand the motivation behind doing that, but it's also no fun to realize you need coffee and can't get any without driving west back to the Vista House or Corbett, or east all the way to Cascade Locks, or wait around and hope a parking space opens up at Multnomah Falls someday. So I don't think it would be the end of the world if they at least allowed a coffee stand or a couple of food trucks in a few spots here and there. A thing that will never happen, but I think we could really use here, would be a few German-style "mountain huts" out at the far ends of various long or difficult trails, so when you get to the top of Larch Mountain, or Mount Defiance, or Wahtum Lake at the far end of the Eagle Creek Trail, there's a large stein of an ice-cold pilsner and a platter of sausages and fondue and sauerkraut waiting for you, and maybe a nice spot for yodeling into the hills later if you're so inclined. (I mean, I'm not saying we absolutely have to copy the entire concept down to the menu, I'm just saying it's a time-tested model, and it wouldn't really be authentic without the sauerkraut.) But, er, I digress.

Anyway, I have never seen the Oasis lot anywhere close to full, seeing as there's officially nothing to do there, and nowhere obvious for you to go on foot from there. What you want to do is park there and walk west along the shoulder of the highway for a few hundred feet, maybe a tenth of a mile. If you pass any driveways, you've gone too far. On the south side of the road, look for a sort of east-facing ramp climbing up and away from the highway. It'll be overgrown with brush so you may not notice it immediately -- here's a Street View link that shows what it looked like in July 2019, in case you want to try finding it there first before trying it in real life. (I don't know whether it's even running right now in this hot, dry summer of 2021, though you can go a few Street View steps west and see the creek was running at the same time of year two years ago. If you missed the ramp the first time and are backtracking, there's a similar west-facing ramp for traffic coming the other direction. If you look at the area on the state LIDAR map here, you can see the two ramps join after a short distance and form what looks like an old, long-abandoned road or driveway. This track does a couple of tight switchbacks uphill and then fades out at a flat area that might be the foundation of a long-gone home or barn or other structure. I don't have any further info about what might have been here, and it's all a bit academic anyway since a.) the possible homesite and beginning of the west-facing ramp seem to be juuust over the state park boundary onto someone's private property, although this isn't marked by any signs that I noticed, and b.) there's a big patch of devil's club right in the middle of the west-facing ramp, almost as if it had been planted there intentionally. These two things may not be completely unrelated.

Anyway, after making your way up the east-facing driveway an obvious use path heads uphill toward the falls. So obviously someone besides us knows about this place, and visits often enough that the trail isn't eaten by the forest. The trail turns into a talus slope before long, but finding your way from there is not a big deal, as you ought to be able to hear or see the falls at that point. The route is kind of steep but short, maybe just a few hundred feet to the falls, but steep enough that your calves might remind you of this little mini-hike the next day. Especially if you've been holed up at home for the last year because pandemic. Overall it kind of reminds me of a miniature Mist Falls: You park at the site of a long-vanished early 20th Century business; the waterfall is a short distance from the road, but you may not be able to see it fro there; summer is not prime viewing season; and you get to it with a short but steep slog up a talus slope.

After you've had a look at the falls and taken some photos, unfortunately all you can really do at that point is retrace your steps and head back to the Oasis lot (or wherever you stashed your bike if you arrived that way). There's no trail up to the top of the falls, nor is there a trail over to the next falls, or viewpoint or whatever, to the east or west. You're on State Park land at the base of the falls, but another property boundary seems to run right along the top of the bluff, as if the state bought the minimal amount of land to protect the parts you can see from the road. So probably no trail to the top here anytime soon. In theory they could probably route a trail along the base of the bluff, next to the highway, to at least keep climbers out of the road in case the Gorge ever freezes again. But I gather the state has only owned land here since the late 1970s -- I say 'only' because I remember the late 1970s and therefore it was not very long ago -- and the Gorge as a whole essentially had one big burst of trail construction in the years before and after the old highway opened in 1916, so any place that was in private hands a century ago missed out on the one and only bite at the apple there's been (so far). Which of course comes down to money, or the lack thereof at any time since the late Wilson or early Harding administration. That's the main reason there's no trail here, and why there isn't one at Mist Falls, or a trail up Bridal Veil Creek to the middle and upper falls there, or anything at Moffett Creek, and any number of other places.

In particular, the stretch of Gorge from Angels Rest west to about Portland Womens Forum largely belongs to various state parks, with bits of Forest Service and private land here and there, and it seems like there ought to be a trail or two connecting the various major attractions (Portland Womens Forum / Chanticleer Point, the Vista House, Latourell Falls, Shepperds Dell, Bridal Veil, & Angels Rest, plus Rooster Rock & Dalton Point along the Columbia.) Unfortunately much of this block of parkland was assembled piece by piece starting in the 1950s, and typically there was just enough money to buy the land and not enough to do anything new with it, so no such trail was ever built.

It's not as if there haven't been grand plans over the years. The Gorge Trail #400 -- the east-west connector between a bunch of other trails -- was a late 20th century addition to the trail network. Long stretches of it already existed under other names, but the notion of hiking the Gorge more-or-less end to end did not really occur to anyone until well after the 1910s and 20s. The present-day trail stretches between Angels Rest and Wyeth in two segments, with a long gap west of Elowah Falls where the trail was never rebuilt after an enormous landslide in 1996. A third, very obscure piece of the trail starts at Lewis & Clark State Park at Troutdale and peters out randomly in the woods a few miles east of there (which is a whole other unfinished blog post.) This sort of hints at the original goal of the project, a continuous trail between Troutdale and Hood River, or maybe The Dalles, or points east. It seems like a trail from Chanticleer Point to Angels Rest ought to be the lowest-hanging remaining fruit of the wider project, but even that hasn't been enough to get the thing funded.

There was even a specific (potential) route picked out at one point, in the early 80s before the Trail 400 effort lost steam. If you look at a regular map of the area, say Google Maps, you'll see a couple of minor side roads heading uphill from the HCRH. Alex Barr Rd. is a steep, lightly used single-lane gravel road, but it eventually connects through to the web of rural roads further up and to the south, with homes, farms, horses & cows, even a few clearcuts, and you can easily get to Larch Mountain Road from there. Further east, Henderson Road is just a short access road up to Bridal Veil Lakes, a private event venue more or less above Shepperd's Dell. However if you look at a map that shows official property boundaries, say, a current county survey map, you'll see a few additional roads in the Bridal Veil area that don't appear on ordinary maps, one of which is a mile-long continuation of Henderson Rd. to the west so that it connects to Alex Barr Road, and runs above the full length of the Shepperds Dell bluffs.

That section of Henderson Road (aka County Road 634) doesn't appear on most maps because Multnomah County closed it to motor vehicle traffic back in 1981[1]. But they explicitly did not vacate the right of way entirely, as they wanted to keep their options open for reusing it someday. Namely for reuse as part of a proposed extension of Gorge Trail #400 someday. Which still hasn't happened 40 years later. But at least this stretch of right-of-way remains available as an option, in case the state or the feds ever take a fresh interest in the idea and also find the money to do something about it. Or I suppose if the county found the money, since they still own the dormant road, or maybe Metro since they seem to have some level of actual money to spend on projects like this, unlike the other aforementioned agencies.

The 1981 article further points out that the closed road is a rare surviving fragment of the old Portland-Dalles (or Sandy-Dalles) Wagon Road, the Columbia River Highway's immediate predecessor dating back to the 1870s or so. So there may be some historic preservation value to this bit of road too, if people ever take an interest in saving parts of it like they've done in recent years with the early 20th century HCRH route. I suppose they could even bundle it into the current HCRH project, as that would provide another mile or so of trail where bikes don't have to share the old highway with cars. And in terms of scenic highlights, the Columbia River Images page about Shepperds Dell quotes an old Oregonian article about the falls, which mentions in passing that you could once get to the various upper tiers of Shepperds Dell Falls (most of which you can't see from the famous viewpoint along the old highway) via the old wagon road, so it sounds like there would be at least one point of scenic interest along the way if the trail ever becomes a real thing. Or two, if you count peeking over the top of Cruiser Falls here.

So all of that sounds great, but I have no idea what the present-day road is actually like. I haven't personally checked it out. I also haven't seen any reports of other people checking it out, or any recent photos from the area, so the road could be eroded and unsafe, or overgrown and impossible to follow, or who knows. There's also the inconvenient little detail that the right of way crosses a couple of private landowners' land along the way, and they may not necessarily agree with, or even be aware of, the legal status of the old road, and clearing that up in person is very much Not My Job, thank you very much.


The closed road here is actually just one of several now-closed county roads or parts of roads in the general area. Here's a quick list of the roughly Gorge-area ones I know of that are either closed entirely or in part. The links go to pages at the Multnomah County Surveyor's office, as linked from their interactive map, and these rather austere pages in turn link to the original county ordinance creating the road, and the original survey map when one is available. Maybe you weren't aware that county roads even had numbers? I didn't until I stumbled across it a few months ago in a bout of mid-pandemic boredom. I don't think I've ever seen a road sign with a county road number on it. The system is really simple: Road numbers are chronological, and are just the order that a road survey was filed, or that concerned citizens filed a petition asking the county for a new road. The problem with this system is that if (for example) you ever need to reroute a stretch of road around an obstacle instead of over it, or through an obstacle instead of around it, that involves a new road survey and thus a new road number, and if these road numbers were widely used by the public you'd then have to update a bunch of maps and road signs too.

Incidentally, County Road 0001 was an early survey of Portland's Powell Boulevard, filed in June 1855 when the county was not quite six months old; eastside roads surveyed before December 1854 -- and there probably were at least a handful of them -- would have been filed as Clackamas County roads. Along with roads from various other distant places, as the "Clackamas District" of 1843 was a vaguely defined region including everything in the also-vaguely-defined 'Oregon Country' not part of one of the other three, more well-defined districts, which were sort of large versions of today's Washington, Yamhill, and Marion Counties. Everything else south to California, east to the Rockies, or north as far as the "54-40 or Fight" version of the disputed Canadian border was, in theory, Clackamas at one time. Though of course the existing native population was not exactly consulted on this matter.

Anyway, here's that list I mentioned:

  • Road 481 / Rooster Rock Road, the one we explored in the Palisade Falls post
  • Road 377 / Latourell Hill Road, another bit of old wagon road, which drops steeply from Larch Mtn. Road to the town of Latourell east of Latourell Falls and west of the famous figure-eight loops. I gather this was a very scenic but dreaded part of the journey to The Dalles, and one of the chief selling points of the new HCRH was that it rerouted traffic away from this stretch of road, adding switchbacks and the part that loops around the Vista House to create a more 'modern' route, without steep slopes and hairpin bends. Lidar says this road still exists, though nearby landowners have posted unfriendly No Trespassing signs around either end of it. Recreating the HCRH has a page about this road, and I've come across least one OregonHikers trip report about it. The road is still visible as a side road on the famous 1915 birds-eye map of the old highway from when it first opened. Said map even points out the location of "Goat Point", a long-forgotten scenic viewpoint along the now-obsolete old road, and includes a photo of the view from there toward Crown Point.
  • Road 634 / Henderson Road, the very one I was talking about above.
  • Road 566 / Latourell Falls Toll Road, which once connected a sawmill near the falls with the Brower & Thompson sawmill way uphill, near where present-day Brower Road crosses Young Creek. This was originally a private road and its right of way also included a huge log flume, believe it or not. The initial stretch of Alex Barr Rd, and the dead-end bit of NE Toll Rd. off Brower are surviving bits of this old road.
  • Road 458 / Brower Rd. There's a long stretch of the original route of Brower Rd from Young Creek to Bridal Veil Creek & Palmer Mill Road, like the road currently does, but via a longer, more indirect route. From what I can tell this road was created in 1888 and closed to vehicle traffic sometime not long after 1899 and definitely before 1913. But the county has kept it on the books as a county road ever since, for reasons I'm not privy to. I don't know how much actual road remains out there in the forest, seeing as it hasn't been used as a road in over 120 years, and only operated as a road for 10 before that, but there's at least a small initial surviving piece of it near the (present-day) Brower Rd. - Young Creek crossing, about which another draft post is pending.
  • Road 493, which branched off Road 458 and turned south, and continued due south for miles and miles all the way to the county line. This one was vacated back in the 1950s but there may still be remnants of it out in the forest somewhere.
  • Road 550, which branched off 458 at the long-vanished mill town of Brower, then headed due east toward Larch Mountain, then turned south and contoured southeast-ish around the mountain, ending up somewhere deep in the forbidden Bull Run watershed. This is not the same road as the old abandoned Forest Service road NF-20, which contours around the mountain at a different elevation, sorta parallel to Road 550.
  • Road 798, a short road off present-day Brower that was more of a driveway than a full-fledged road. Seems that when the county rerouted Road 458, they took away one landowner's only legal access to public roads, and he threw a fit about it, pestering the county to make things right and create him a new driveway across a neighbor's land. Not a public road anymore but it does exist and will show up in another post that's in the works.
  • Road 625 / upper Palmer Mill Road, south of the bridge/intersection with Brower Rd. This is not the Palmer Mill Road you might be familiar with though, which runs along the side of Bridal Veil Creek, and is a Forest Service road (road # 1520-000) that the USFS has been trying to close and dismantle for years. The county road is uphill of the USFS one and runs roughly parallel to it, before ending up somewhere near the Palmer sawmill (hence the name) along with the long-gone town of Palmer. A surveyed but never-built continuation of the road would have turned sort of northeast from there and journeyed over to Multnomah Basin (but by a different route than the later Multnomah Basin Road), and then somehow switchbacked down to river level somewhere near or maybe east of the unofficial but well-known trail dubbed the Elevator Shaft, so called due to how insanely steep it is. After that taking roughly the same route as the present-day HCRH and ending at yet another sawmill near Elowah Falls. This was largely the Bridal Veil Lumber Company's idea, and would have connected three mills at enormous taxpayer expense. On closer inspection, the road petition turned out to be a sort of astroturfing campaign, as many of the petitioners for the new road turned out to be mill employees. Actual area residents strongly opposed the fantastical proposed road, saying it would be impossible to build, and would be useless if they somehow did find a way to build it, since a wagon road that's too steep for horses pulling a wagon kind of fails at being a wagon road.
  • An unnumbered, isolated stretch of right-of-way near the headwaters of Mist Creek, specifically in township 1N5E, section 13, tax lot 800, if you understand surveying lingo. This puts it close to, but not intersecting, the Angels Rest Trail, close to the point where it switchbacks sharply uphill west of Wahkeena Creek. A township map of the area has an arrow pointing at it with the caption "1956-1798-22"; I'm guessing the first number is a year that this thing was created, but I don't know if represents a survey, a county ordinance, or something else entirely. I have no idea what purpose it was supposed to serve, but it seems to me that a stretch of road that doesn't connect to any other road is of limited usefulness at best.

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