A massive rock slide and the effort to reopen the Eagle Creek Trail

By Roberta Cobb, PCTA/Eagle Creek Fire Trails Coordinator

“When will the Eagle Creek Trail reopen?”

I’ve responded to that question too many times to count since the trail was closed after the 2017 Eagle Creek fire. The short answer is: “We don’t know. There’s so much to do.” The longer answer involves safety, more study, helicoptered bridges, and time and money.

If you thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail before 2018, you probably chose the Eagle Creek Trail as an alternate to the PCT. The PCT is lovely through the area, but the Eagle Creek Trail is studded with amazing waterfalls and high cliff-side traverses. If you’re a Portland local, you know the Eagle Creek Trail is second only to Multnomah Falls as the highest visited trail in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

A rock slide before the Fern Creek Bridge. Photo by Robert Caldwell.

Cleared rock and debris leaves a new trail section. Photo by Robert Caldwell.

The fire that started on Labor Day Weekend of 2017 was a gut-punch to our beloved Gorge trails. The PCTA’s Mount Hood Chapter responded with an amazing number of hours and volunteers to get the trails east of Cascade Locks opened by Father’s Day 2018, including the PCT and trails out of Herman Creek Trailhead. The Eagle Creek Trail and its surrounding landscape were much more heavily damaged. It’s still unsafe to be in there and it remains closed.

The winter in the Gorge was snowier than in recent memory. We were forced to postpone maintenance projects planned for the area. On April 1, we brought our first crew on the Eagle Creek Trail this year and we’ve worked many days already. Three bridges burned badly: the First Bridge, just yards from the trailhead; Fern Creek Bridge, about 2.5 miles from the trailhead; and well-known High Bridge, a little over 3 miles from the trailhead. High Bridge crosses a 120-foot-deep canyon. The trail is not passable without the bridge.

The skeleton of the burned High Bridge, 120 feet over the water in Eagle Creek. Photo by Susan McDonnell.

The Fern Creek and High bridges must be replaced by helicopter. To prepare for that, bridge engineers need to access the sites. Our volunteer crews are working to make a safe and efficient passage for them. We hand-hauled in temporary planking for the Fern Creek Bridge. Some of the planks weighed as much as 60 pounds and were carried by two people. We estimate eight days of work is needed on this section of less than a mile, with each crew consisting of 10-12 people.

A fallen tree holds back tons of rock and debris along the Eagle Creek Trail. Photo by Seth Dietz.

On April 15, one of the U.S. Forest Service trail employees, Nathaniel Brodie, joined our crew. He was our sawyer on the day we released an enormous rock slide. The crew discussed options and possible outcomes before Nathaniel climbed into position to cut the horizontal log. He was in a safe spot for cutting. The horizontal log held back a couple of other logs and roots as well as a lot of loose rock. The crew members knew the cut would release a slide. Our rigger that day, PCTA volunteer Robert Caldwell, said that there were two logs that came down with the slide and had to be rigged off the trail. Rock slides like this remind us why the trail is still closed.

Watch the video by Seth Dietz.

Beyond High Bridge, the scouting done in summer of 2018 found a number of dangerous logs across the trail. These are highly complex logging problems that only our highest trained sawyers can clear. We are fortunate to have a few of these highly skilled people on our volunteer roster, but we need to wait until the bridges are in so we can carry in bigger chain saws.

Near Tunnel Falls, famous for the trail blasted through the rock behind a waterfall, there is a cliff collapse on the downstream side. Our scouts reported this as one of the most treacherous crossings, so those rocks will have to be cleared very carefully. We’ll need Forest Service geologists to look for additional safety concerns as well.

From the upper end of the Eagle Creek Trail at Wahtum Lake, we are waiting for snowmelt to see what the winter brought us. We know of a boulder the size of a small van that is sitting on the trail near Inspiration Point. We need to reassess that to see how we will move it off the trail.

New trail tread replaces the debris field. Photo by Seth Dietz.

People have requested that we offer weekend crews on the Eagle Creek Trail. We follow strict safety rules when working in a closed area. Radio communications are mandatory for crew safety. The Eagle Creek Trail runs in a deep canyon with little cell phone coverage, so we carry Forest Service radios and rely on the professionals at Columbia Dispatch. They only operate on weekdays. Once they go to a 7-day schedule, we’ll start weekend crews. We also plan to organize overnight crews this summer, especially from Wahtum Lake.

We enjoy working with our Forest Service partners. The Eagle Creek Trail traverses the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and the Mount Hood National Forest. The PCTA and our agency partners regularly meet and email and coordinate plans. They bring many technical skills to the project, such as the engineering design for the new bridges, working the contracts for the helicopter, coordinating the geologists and supervising the work. The PCTA is proud to include among our volunteer ranks highly skilled sawyers, well-trained riggers, and excellent crew leaders. We marshal many volunteers to get the work done. More volunteers not only make the work go faster, but those volunteers come away with a deeper appreciation of the workings of a complicated trail maintenance operation and a deeper connection to trail.