Eagle Creek Trail reopens after three years of work by volunteers

The September 2017 fire that swept through the Columbia River Gorge temporarily closed 10 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and a popular PCT alternate route, the Eagle Creek Trail. Pacific Crest Trail Association volunteers were able to reopen the PCT quickly, but the Eagle Creek Trail, which follows a steep and beautiful canyon, just reopened on Jan. 1.

PCTA volunteers Omar Sankari and Tom Wiemann pause to admire Tunnel Falls at the end of a hard day clearing rocks from Eagle Creek Trail, a PCT alternate route near Cascade Locks, Oregon. Photo by Bob Cather.

The effort by volunteers from the PCTA’s Mt. Hood Chapter to clear and make safe this iconic trail, popular with both day-hikers and thru-hikers, can be described as no less than Herculean. Consider the numbers:

  • Projects undertaken: 64
  • Volunteer Hours: 6,369
  • Feet of trail rehabilitated: 27,935
  • Logs removed: 171

Volunteers with PCTA’s Mount Hood Chapter fill a gabion to strengthen the trail in the Eagle Creek burn area. Photo by PCTA.

Those astounding numbers only begin to tell the story. Restoring the Eagle Creek Trail has been no ordinary trail maintenance effort. Many trees fell and were hanging above or across the trail. The canyon’s steep walls shed massive amounts of rock after the fire burned away the fragile vegetative cover holding it together. Parts of the trail, carved into a cliffside with a sheer drop, were piled high with loose rock and needed to be painstakingly cleared by hand. Crews battled the elements as they worked, often having to revisit areas as new rocks and trees fell.

Three burned bridges needed to be replaced. The Fern Creek and High bridges were replaced by helicopter. But volunteers hand-hauled temporary planking for the Fern Creek Bridge to give engineers passage to the higher span. Two-person teams carried pairs of planks weighing almost 60 pounds for 2.6 miles.

The Eagle Creek Fire destroyed parts of the PCT near the Columbia River Gorge in 2017. Volunteers with PCTA’s Mt. Hood Chapter worked through the summer months to return the trail to pre-fire conditions. Photo by Nate Zaremskiy.

“For the past three years, our most talented volunteers—with superhuman perseverance and help from our partners in the U.S. Forest Service and other trail groups—have been carving this treasured trail back into the hillside. Reopening the Eagle Creek Trail is a very happy day for us. We’re especially proud of volunteer crew leader Susan McDonnell, who won PCTA’s Maintainer of the Year award for her outstanding leadership of Eagle Creek Trail crews.” —Dana Hendricks, PCTA Regional Representative

The Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area was ignited by a careless teenager playing with fireworks at the end of a dry summer. The Columbia 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.

New timbers for a burned bridge. Photo by Nate Zaremskiy.

Local hikers were not alone in feeling like all was lost as the fire burned. The nation watched as gorge winds pushed flames in every direction and rained down ash on communities tens of miles away. At one point, hot embers flew across the river, sparking a blaze on the Washington side.

In all, the fire burned 50,000 acres, but the good news is that only 8,000 acres burned at high intensity. The fire burned very hot in the epicenter that was the Eagle Creek Gorge, but elsewhere it left a mosaic of burn areas, opening some places to new light and clearing the forest floor for new growth, wildflowers and the movement of wildlife that depends on fire. The resulting rebirth of “the young charcoal forest” can be seen in this video by PCTA volunteer Ralph Bloemers.

Another good outcome: the PCTA and the Mt. Hood Chapter volunteers helped train a new legion of volunteers who stepped up after the fire. Even as the fire was still only partially contained, the 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. Working as a team, they have helped re-open many of the gorge trails.

The precarious trail needed a lot of white-knuckle clearing time. Photo by Nate Zaremskiy.

The ignition of the Eagle Creek Fire was a senseless tragedy that did not have to happen. But fire is a natural, restorative force that keeps our forests healthy, and parts of the Columbia Gorge were transformed in positive ways. The fire also gave us pause to appreciate the scenic beauty of the large landscapes we are lucky to have in the West and to realize what would happen if we lost them.

We should not take these places for granted. Taking care of our public lands is up to all of us. The PCTA thanks all the volunteers who have joined our crews in the gorge.

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You can become part of the solution. Volunteer or become a PCTA member at www.pcta.org

Author: Mark Larabee

Mark Larabee is the PCTA's Associate Director of Communications, Advocacy and Government Relations. He is editor of the "PCT Communicator" magazine and manages the association's Congressional advocacy efforts. He is 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.