Saturday, July 31, 2021

Donohue Creek Trail

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Next up we're checking out the obscure Donohue Creek Trail, in the Bridal Veil - Larch Mountain corner of the Columbia Gorge. It begins off Brower Road a bit north of Pepper Mountain, and if you don't recognize those names it's a clue as to why this is such an obscure trail. The trail heads east from there, eventually crossing its namesake creek and then joining an equally obscure north-south trail that I can't find the name of. Most of the trail is on Forest Service land, but the trail isn't an official USFS trail. Most of the trail looks exactly like a single lane gravel logging road, but you also won't find it on a list of official Forest Service roads, or official county roads, or any sort of road. Officially it doesn't exist at all, and yet here it is, so here we are.

The name originated with Our Mother The Mountain, a local cycling website, and at least three variants of a route they've dubbed "The Dark Larch". Lately someone's been adding these recently-coined names to OpenStreetMap where non-MTB people can stumble across them. Either on OSM itself or any site that uses it as a base map layer, which is how I bumped into it on AllTrails. A lot of these names are a bit... overwrought, and tend to elicit eyerolls when they show up in the OregonHikers forums -- like, the trail OregonHikers field guide calls the "Buck Creek Trail" (or the "Buck Creek on Larch Mountain Hike" due to the vast number of creeks named Buck Creek around the Northwest) is known as the "Dark Larch Wizard Trail" under this alternate naming scheme. My sense is that in the local hiking world, you don't call something a "wizard trail" unless it leads you to wizards, or at least a nice view of wizards in the distance, or maybe a place where there used to be wizards before the last clearcut. You and your hiking buddies can agree that the real wizards were the friends we made along the way, but no, that doesn't really count.

Going a bit further back, I gather someone named Donahue was once big in the timber business in this area. Besides the creek that this trail goes to, there was once a mill town named Donahue somewhere south of Larch Mt. Road, and a Donahue Road that heads south off Larch just east of Brower Road. This was a former county road built in 1889, and vacated in 1979, and is now a gated Weyerhaeuser access road popular with MTB riders. But that's an old road for a different day, or possibly never, since I'm not entirely sure that biking on Weyerhaeuser's roads is strictly legal. I'm not trying to scold anyone here; I'm just saying that if you're on a bike you can outrun corporate security goons if they're on foot, and outmaneuver them if they're in trucks, and do cool BMX tricks the whole time just to make the security dudes even angrier. That doesn't work so well if you're just hiking, unfortunately.

I'm not sure who built the "Donahue Creek Trail" here. I have found precisely zero useful information about the road and I don't know whether it was built by a previous private owner before the Forest Service, or whether the USFS built and then decommissioned it, long enough ago that you can't find any useful information about it online. But the road still exists other than a bit of superficial decommissioning right at the trailhead, just enough so it's basically invisible from Brower Rd. if you don't already know it's there, and it's effectively blocked for trucks and maybe for ATVs. But you can tell why it was built just by looking at it, going by the dimensions -- wide enough for a log truck, not wide enough for two-way traffic -- and by multiple areas along the road where all the trees are obviously the same age (and you can still see the decayed old stumps of much larger trees).

You can also tell by how road is laid out, with a main road and a couple of side branches off of it that look promising but just sort of dead-end after a while without really going anywhere. That's the problem with a lot of logging roads, and a big reason why you can't just turn them all into trails: The only interesting place they went was to a grove of valuable conifers, and they were all turned into 2x4s many decades ago, and there's no longer any reason for anyone to use the road. But roads don't just go away when they're obsolete. To be useful in the first place, a bunch of grading and steamrolling has to happen, followed by covering it in a layer of gravel to ensure nothing grows there. And that works remarkably well, and keeps old roads largely intact for decades on end with zero maintenace and no further traffic. Which is great right up until you realize you don't want all these roads after all and you'd like to be rid of them. That's when things get expensive. Here and there the USFS will do a more thorough decommissioning and "obliterate" the road -- that's their official term for it -- which means you break up and remove the old roadbed, pull up any culverts under it, and generally make the entire length of the road unusable by all vehicles. I've seen figures to the effect that this can cost up to $10k per mile, and Oregon alone has over 70,000 miles of Forest Service roads. Even we assume that maybe 20k miles of road are keepers, that's still around half a billion dollars to really get rid of the others, and Congress has never seen fit to allocate anything close to a down payment on that. And that's without taking any other states into consideration, and without doing anything about surplus roads on BLM, state/local, or private land. I've never seen even a ballpark figure for how many miles of those exist, quite possibly because nobody knows.

The trail has two trailheads on the west end: The one on the map above, if you can see it, and another south of there near where Brower Rd. crosses Young Creek. The north one might be easier to find from the road if you don't know where to look, and it's the only trailhead shown on OpenStreetMap, but the south one has space to park and not be in a ditch or halfway in the road, so I went with it. If I'm not mistaken, the first 800' or so from the north trailhead is a former county road / right of way. Seems that when the county closed off the old Road 458 -- the longer, original route of Brower Rd. -- they forgot to check whether everyone who lived along it also had legal access to the new road. At least one person wasn't, and after a few years of sort of trespassing on the land of an absent landowner nearby (a local cookie and candy tycoon) he filed a survey asking the county to build him a driveway across an uncooperative neighbor's land, in compensation for their earlier screwup. Though also proposing that the county butt out if he was able to cut a deal with said neighbor. I don't know how the dispute got resolved, but one way or another he got his driveway. And at the end of those 800 feet, you can still sort of tell where his cabin used to be, at the spot where the trail route abruptly turns 90 degrees and heads south instead of east.

The road meanders east from the trailhead and then sort of peters out as you near Donohue Creek, about two miles in (not counting wandering down side roads to see where they go) . I don't know if this was the east edge of the logging operation the road was built for, or maybe there used to a be a bridge here, I'm not really sure. At this point a real trail -- not an old road -- heads downhill to the creek and up the other side. I turned around at the creek, but the trail continues up the far bank and ends in a junction with a meandering, unnamed north-south track that connects to Larch Mt. Road on one end and ends somewhere near Bridal Veil Creek on the other. I wasn't feeling quite that ambitious when I visited. Plus that route puts you on private timberland outside the National Scenic Area boundary. Which is actually ok here -- the company honors the traditional social contract about public access, at least as of 2019, the most recent year I've found documentation for. On the other hand that area was logged within the last few years, so it's probably not a scenic gem right now.