The PCT in the Columbia River Gorge could open soon

PCTA Mount Hood Chapter volunteers walk newly repaired trail in the Columbia River Gorge. Photos by Terry Hill.

(Editor’s note: This story was original printed in the spring issue of the Pacific Crest Trail Communicator magazine.)

When a wildfire ripped through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area last summer and fall, the big question was: “How bad is it?

The river is the dividing line between Oregon and Washington. People living in Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington — and the smaller towns along both sides of the river — consider it a special place to recreate and seek refuge.

Here the duff-covered Pacific Crest Trail meanders and switches back, passing churning streams and rumbling waterfalls, where the wet ground is covered by moss and ferns and massive firs reach to the sky. It’s also where smoldering hot spots were seen as late as December, even after heavy rains and snow fell for several weeks.

Nearly 49,000 acres burned and were closed to public access, including 10 miles of the PCT. About 25 percent of the Columbia River Gorge is in the burn area, though less than a quarter of that burned at high intensity. There are about 100 miles of trails in the burn area. In late January, Mount Hood National Forest officials reopened 14,500 acres for public use, including the PCT from Buck Peak to Indian Springs. Still, popular gorge landmarks and trails along Interstate 84 remained closed.

The trail through the burn area.

On Jan. 17, a special crew that included PCTA Regional Representative Dana Hendricks and highly experienced PCTA volunteer leaders worked alongside the U.S. Forest Service to rehabilitate the first section of the PCT in the gorge since the fire. They cleared a 3-mile section from the Herman Creek trailhead east of Cascade Locks, which connects to the PCT. From there, the PCT heads north into town.

The answer to that initial question — “How bad is it?” — remains somewhat elusive if you’re considering the fire in its entirety. However, there is good news for the PCT.

The 10 miles of the PCT in the burn area is on the Forest Service’s short list of trail segments that probably will open this year, Dana said. Although much of the slope along the PCT in the Columbia River Gorge burned, roughly 90 percent of the fire on and near the trail burned at low intensity, she said. The large trees are scorched along the base but the canopy is healthy.

“I went in there expecting the worst and was really thrilled to find out that it wasn’t as badly burned as I had thought,” said Roberta Cobb, chair of the PCTA’s Mount Hood Chapter. “I came out of there knowing that it’s totally fixable. There are issues, but we are seeing that mosaic burn pattern that is really healthy. It will come back.”

Trees scarred by fire along the PCT in the Columbia River Gorge.

Fire is considered a healthy and natural part of western forest evolution. In fact, these forests and many of the plant and animal species that live within them are fire dependent. Many old trees throughout the West have burn scars, evidence of past fires and the forest’s ability to survive, even thrive after a wildfire.

“Most of the beautiful moss carpet is gone, though there are patches of it left,” Dana said. “The ferns are gone. So is the Oregon grape. What you see on the hill is a rubble pile.”

That rubble is mostly rock and loose dirt, released when the fire burned low to the ground, turning the ground cover and its root systems that keep everything in place to dust. The fire’s heat can make the soils “hydrophobic,” Dana said, meaning the earth resists its natural tendency to absorb water. More rainfall runs along the surface, picking up debris. These forces combine on steep ground, causing the earth to slide.

Rocks and fallen trees covered sections of the PCT, and big slides have severed the trail in places seen so far. The first crew spent a day clearing piles of rock, logs and debris from the trail and surveying places where they will need to return and rebuild. They filled in burn holes, where roots that crossed under the trail had burned away, leaving voids that collapse under foot.

One thing they found was that the loose rock set some potentially dangerous traps.  Fallen trees are sitting atop rocks, and the rocks are acting like marbles. At one point, a crew member started climbing over a tree that had fallen across the trail in steep terrain. Another log was behind that one and there were large boulders on top of the pile and the whole mess moved with the weight of one person.

“It started sliding as if on ball bearings,” Dana said. “I would sum up the post-burn hazards to hikers and trail workers by saying everything is looser than you think  — the rocks, the downed logs, the branches overhead. Fire damage makes everything weaker. The natural integrity is diminished.”

Loosened by fire and rain, rock and debris fell across the trail.

PCTA’s maintenance crews have a lot of hard work ahead in the gorge to make the trail safe for hikers and horseback riders. The condition of the trail deeper into the forest remains a mystery, though aerial surveillance and an assessment of the gentler slope of the PCT higher up leads U.S. Forest Service officials to believe that the work needed to reopen the PCT can likely be accomplished this year.

“There is a section that was hit really hard up high that we’ll be able to see once the snow melts,” Roberta said.

The news for other trails in the gorge is mixed. The Forest Service released its initial assessment of trail damage in mid-January. Officials said some trails could open this spring and summer, while others, where the fire burned more intensely, may be closed for several years. The PCT is on the agency’s list of gorge trails that fared best.

For example, the Eagle Creek trail, an often-preferred alternative to for PCT thru-hikers because of its beautiful moss-covered cliffs, deep clear pools and waterfalls, burned at high intensity. One of the two fires that combined in the gorge allegedly was started here on Sept. 2 by a teenager playing with fireworks. Winter rainfall, falling timber and scorched, loose earth are making conditions so dangerous in this narrow shooting gallery that it remains closed, even to the professionals. It may be closed for a long time to come.

“More material will be coming down throughout the winter,” Dana said. “Why risk the exposure of sending anyone in there to assess now when the condition of the trail is going to be totally different anyway?”

The asphalt path leading up from the Multnomah Falls Lodge at the base of Oregon’s tallest waterfall is buried in tons of earth and debris, though the lodge itself reopened in late November. There’s no estimate when that popular trail, with its scenic bridge/viewing area, will reopen. Safety is a major issue.

Most trails in the burn area were still off limits as this issue went to press. The Forest Service has issued dozens of $280 trespassing citations — some to people who posted photo evidence on social media sites.

As Forest Service officials began doing trail assessments, they called on the PCTA for help. The scenic area’s seasonal trail crew is off for the winter, so agency officials asked the PCTA to step in. PCTA staff and Mount Hood Chapter volunteer leaders submitted resumes outlining their trail maintenance experience and safety training before they were chosen for the work.

“People like Roberta Cobb and Robert Caldwell are so skilled in this work,” Dana said. “It’s something to be proud of, that we have volunteer leaders with such expert abilities. They are the A-team.”

The A Team: On Jan. 17, a highly trained PCTA crew repaired three miles of the PCT in the Herman Creek drainage. Work continues in the area.

While the team is planning more work in the burn area, the chapter is also training a new legion of volunteers who stepped up after the fire. Even as the fire was still only partially contained, PCTA, Trailkeepers of Oregon, Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Washington Trails Association formed the Gorge Trails Recovery Team to tap into the emotional energy of local residents who wanted to do something to help. Since October, the team has held dozens of trainings for new volunteers, both in classrooms and field sessions.

Since the fires, the PCTA has enlisted and trained nearly 250 new volunteers who have collectively spent about 1,500 hours getting ready for the 2018 maintenance season. So far, they are working on trails outside the burn area. For example, a few days after the crew did its first work on the PCT, Roberta held an Intro to Trail Work class for 35 new volunteers.

Roberta said the vibe among people attending is positive.

“When we get them out on the trail, they are having a great time, and they wonder when they can come out again,” she said. “Our limiting factor will be having enough trained crew leaders. We’re overwhelmed and happy for it, but we’re struggling with how to get leaders trained and keeping people engaged.”

But the truth is, while these new volunteers may not get to work on the trails in the burn area for months or even years, there is a lot of work on other nearby sections of the PCT that can use their energy.

“When I address these new volunteers, one of the first things I tell them is that the trail needs you even without the fire,” Dana said. “The fire was the catalyst. But they are there for the trail. It’s not like they are only interested in the burn area.”


Interested in getting out on a volunteer project? Take a look at our online project schedule for an event in your area.

Author: Mark Larabee

Mark Larabee is the PCTA's Advocacy Director. He is the former editor of the "PCT Communicator" magazine and co-author of "The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America's Wilderness Trail" published in 2016. Larabee is a journalist, part of a team who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for The Oregonian newspaper. He hiked the PCT across Oregon for a 2005 series for the paper and has been with PCTA since 2010. He lives in Portland.