Mark O. Hatfield Trail ~ Oregon (June 2010)

The Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness covers some 65,436 acres (26,481 ha) along the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge. It hosts numerous named and numbered hiking trails (including a piece of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)). Linking these various extant trails into a continuous west-east (or east-west) route may have occurred to someone in days past. But my first awareness of such a possibility came in 2009 when Beer Town Bill explained how he’d backpacked through the wilderness from Starvation Creek to Multnomah Falls. The next year, Tom Kloster floated a proposal to formalize a similar route – to be called the Mark O. Hatfield Trail.

The route as shown on the Oregon Hikers website (2018)

After having done a lot of day hikes in the Gorge [we lived in Portland then], backpacking this route seemed like a logical step up. It would let me visit some areas just out of reach of a sane day hike. Unless this was to be one’s only visit to the Gorge, the 6-day backpack envisioned by the proposal seemed a bit long. So I planned on doing the route as one 4-day/3-night backpack. Then work obligations forced it into separate one- and two-night ones (I blended those two together for this one post). And, because the proposed route wasn’t “official” yet, I made a few changes in it to suit myself.

Day 1: Angel’s Rest to near Nesmith Point

I chose to start at Angel’s Rest rather than at Multnomah Falls as proposed. Yes, there’s an historic lodge there but the tourist crowds and paved trail to the top of the falls were seriously off-putting. And, yes, Angel’s Rest is one of the busiest trails in the Gorge. But The LovedOne dropped me off so no parking was needed and what crowds there were evaporated once I got past the Rest itself. If I’d started at the eastern end – at Starvation Creek – I’d have faced a 4,000+ foot (1,220+ m) climb with a full pack on day one! 😥

I followed the Angel’s Rest Trail (#415) past Angel’s Rest and Wahkeena Spring to the Wahkeena Trail (#420) and that to the Larch Mountain Trail (#441) and went up that to its junction with the Franklin Ridge Trail (#427). If I’d been doing the proposed route, I would have reached here directly from Multnomah Falls and continued on up over Larch Mountain. I didn’t.

Looking west over the Columbia River from Angel’s Rest
On the Angel’s Rest Trail
Wakeena Falls
Crossing Multnomah Creek on the Wahkeena Trail
Starting up the ridge
On the Franklin Ridge Trail

The #427 took me up to the Oneonta Trail (#424) which I followed for a short distance to its junction with the Bell Creek Trail (#459). This is one of the least visited trails in the Gorge and as a result was poorly maintained and overgrown in spots. Still, it wasn’t too hard to follow it to its junction with the Horsetail Creek Trail (#425).

On the Bell Creek Trail

The #425 took me across the forks of Horsetail Creek to closed Forest Road (FR) 20-222 just south of Nesmith Point. There’s an old campsite next to the middle fork of Horsetail and I considered stopping there, but the day was still young, so I pressed on. There are a couple of excellent viewpoints along the #425, between Yeon Mountain and Nesmith Point, so I got a view of Mount Adams with thunderheads brewing. Water can be collected at the creek and carried to where there are flat spots to camp on FR 20-222, making it not a bad spot to call it a day after about 16.5 miles (26 km) of travel, with about 3,500 feet (1,067 m) of elevation gain.

A view of Mount Adams from the #425
Day 2: Near Nesmith Point to Big Cedar Springs

From FR 20-222, I went east on the Moffett Creek Trail (#430). It was very distinct and easy to follow until I reached a power line service road. There’s a little metal shack here (which shows on USGS maps from the 1950s) that may have had something to do with guarding the power lines during World War II.

McCord Creek
The metal shack near the power lines

Past the shack, a lack of signage, odd intersections with the service road, and a deteriorated tread meant greater vigilance was needed to find and follow the trail. Eventually, I reached a forlorn and tattered little sign. I didn’t know it then but the condition of this sign was a metaphor for trail conditions ahead.

A sign of things to come

A “Von Ahn Rim Camp” was rumored to be near here but it was a no show. I did find a pond, now filled beyond capacity by the recent rains, and hosting clouds of blood-seeking mosquitoes. Farther along, the #430 became, in many, many places, little more than a glorified game trail. It wasn’t too hard to follow but I had to pay close attention. I remember reading a while back that it had been reopened or restored but any such efforts weren’t apparent.

Not far past the pond, the trail suddenly opened to a view of Tanner Butte and Mount Hood. After this, the trail passed a relatively new wilderness boundary sign (on a trail with otherwise minimal signage!), and started dropping toward Tanner Creek – with its quality now ranging from game trail to not bad. There was a lot of overgrowth and some spots where a section of the trail had been removed by falling trees or small landslides.

A badly damaged trail

It wasn’t hard to follow if I concentrated. The worst part was pushing through the Devil’s Club just before reaching Tanner Creek. Much pain ensued. 😥 There’s no bridge over Tanner Creek, so you either wade or find a fallen log. When I reached the creek, it wasn’t running as high and fast as recent rains might have suggested, but still seemed too much for wading, particularly given that the rocks on its shores were slicker than greased glass due to wet algae.

Tanner Creek

I was greatly relieved, therefore, to see a log crossing it about 200 feet (61 m) downstream.  I tried reaching this log along the edge of the creek but the rocks were too treacherous. So I had to flounder through the stream-side vegetation and yet more Devil’s Club. More pain ensued.

After shimmying across the log, I thrashed north along the Tanner Creek Trail (#431) – which was wet, overgrown, damaged in spots, and in need of much maintenance – to the Tanner Cutoff Trail (#448) and followed that up to the Tanner Butte Trail (#401) near Dublin Lake. Except for having to pay close attention at the bottom, the #448 presented no real route finding issues. Some very nice person had even gone to the trouble of cutting away a blowdown that had been blocking the trail about halfway up – what a relief not to have to crawl! {In retrospect, the drop in to and climb out of Tanner Creek canyon was the hardest and most demanding part of this entire hike due to poorly maintained trails and the difficulty of crossing the creek}.

This sign says a lot about the #448 trail

Much of the Tanner Butte Trail past Dublin Lake is actually a reverting roadbed, some parts of which were clear, and some sections, although a little overgrown, were festooned with beargrass and other colorful flowers.  I did a side trip to the summit of Tanner Butte in hopes of views but the weather wasn’t cooperating. Mount Hood was decapitated by clouds, but I could see from Tanner across to Defiance, roughly 10 air miles away.  Flowers also adorned the summit of the butte – even the Rhododendrons were still blooming.

In the wilderness
On the Tanner Butte Trail
Beargrass line the trail
A decapitated Mount Hood from atop Tanner Butte
Beargrass and Rhododendrons on Tanner

From Tanner Butte, I continued on the #401 to its junction with the Eagle Tanner Trail (#433) and followed that to a camp at Big Cedar Springs. Enroute, I attempted to find Tanner Spring, but its spur trail was so overgrown and eroded that I gave up before finding any water. The #433 above Big Cedar was not in good condition and I had to pay attention so as not to lose it as it twisted and turned down the canyon.

Thrush Pond along the #433

As I was descending, the clouds started to clear and Mount Hood came fully into view.  The springs at Big Cedar were not gushing, but there was enough water for camping.

Mount Hood from the #433

The cedars there really are BIG! I camped next to one that is about 8 feet (2.5 m) DBH.  Camping amongst the cedars was comfortable and spacious. And there were no mosquitoes! It was good to rest after a 12 mile (19 km) day with a nearly 3,000 foot (915 m) loss and gain over Tanner Creek, plus the climb to the top of Tanner Butte.

A BIG cedar (note 2 foot (0.6 m) hiking stick)
Day 3: Big Cedar Springs to Rainy Lake

Temperatures were supposed to start rising so I got an early start to take advantage of the cool gloom of the Eagle Tanner Trail.  Unlike Tanner Creek, crossing Eagle Creek was no problem (there was also a good campsite at this crossing).

Eagle Creek
Tiger Lilies

When I reached the junction with the Eagle Creek Trail (#440), it was like stepping off a cart-track onto a superhighway.  This upper section of the #440 was wide and well-groomed and there were many signs of recent maintenance.  It seems to have become an alternative to the PCT for going from Cascade Locks to Whatum Lake and looked like it was getting PCT-level maintenance.

On the #440

I had decided not to follow the proposed route up to Indian Springs, so I stayed on the #440 and followed its leisurely grade up to Whatum Lake, meeting several other backpackers along the way (I’d seen no one the two days before).

Whatum Lake

At the Lake, after a brief intersection with the PCT, I diverted to the top of Chinidere Mountain, so as to get views of Mounts Hood, Adams, and Rainier while the skies were clear and sunny. This was to make-up for having missed good views from Tanner Butte.

Mount Hood from Chinidere Mountain
Mount Rainier (L) and Mount Adams (R) from Chinidere Mountain

After descending from Chinidere, I found my way to the Rainy-Whatum Trail (#409) and followed it to Rainy Lake. The proposed route would have had me dropping into the Herman Creek drainage on the Herman Creek Trail (#406) and then climbing back out again on the Herman Creek Cutoff Trail (#410). I didn’t fancy camping in a canyon but did fancy the views from the #409 (which is mostly an old road), so the #409 it was. There’s a little cabin at the junction of #409 and #410 trails. It’s supposedly a signal hut left over from World War II.

The supposed WW2 signal hut

At Rainy Lake there were people car camping at the campground but I had the backpacker sites near the lake all to myself. It had been a 14 mile (22 km) day with a 3,000 foot (915 m) climb up from Eagle Creek. The day had been warm but by nightfall temperatures were very comfortable. There were a few pesky mosquitoes around but many fewer than I would have expected. As night fell, spectral reflections of dead trees were cast on the lake.

Rainy Lake at nightfall
Day 4: Rainy Lake to Starvation Creek

Today was supposed to be even warmer, so another early start. Rainy Lake’s bowl faces east, so first light brought a host of cheery colors to the lake and its surrounds.

Rainy Lake at sunrise
Rainy Lake

From Rainy Lake, I followed the Rainy Lake Trail (#423A) to the North Lake Trail (#423), that to the Wyeth Trail (#411), and that to the Mount Defiance Trail (#413). Most of these trail segment were easy to follow but some were pretty overgrown. I took the #413 to the summit of Mount Defiance. Every time I’ve climbed Defiance, I’ve been struck by the juxtaposition of Mount Hood in one direction and a collection of antennas and propane tanks in the other. I captured these two extremes in one shot (“King of the Hill” with propane, and propane accessories…).

Toward North Lake
Mount Hood from the #413
Mount Hood from Mount Defiance (Propane and propane accessories…)

After summiting Defiance, it was a descent down the Mitchell Point Trail (#417) past Warren Lake to the Starvation Ridge Trail (#414).

Warren Lake
Mount Adams from the Starvation Ridge Trail

A knee-busting descent of the #414 and the Starvation Ridge Cut-off Trail (#414B) brought me to Starvation Creek State Park where The LovedOne was waiting. This was planned as a short day, so I was down before noon (which was good because now it was getting HOT!), so we were able to stop at the Char Burger [now the Bridgeside Restaurant] in Cascade Locks for sustenance before heading back to Portland.

The Finish (2010)

My route came to about 52 miles (83 km) with about 10,000 feet (3,048 m) of gain spread over four days. It was an amazing backpack that gave me a glimpse of parts of the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness and the Gorge Scenic Area that I would not have gotten otherwise. Anyone who loves the Gorge should try to fit this backpack into their plans. I’m really afraid that if more of us don’t do so, some of the key trails – like the Bell Creek, Moffett, Eagle Tanner – will deteriorate to the point where the trip will not be readily accessible to most backpackers. That would be a terrible loss and one that I hope won’t be allowed to happen.

My version of the Hatfield Trail
Epilogue (2021)

By 2012, some sections of trail which I found to be in poor condition, such as the descent into and out of Tanner Creek, had been rehabilitated by volunteer trail tenders. As of summer 2017, the Hatfield had been hiked or backpacked or run – more or less along the official route – by more than a few others and some even did climbs of all the high points along the route.

Then, in early September 2017, all hiking and backpacking and camping in the Gorge was upended by the devastating Eagle Creek Fire. Although this fire spared the Hatfield east of Wahtum Lake, it impacted all or parts of it west of there to Angel’s Rest. Trails in the Gorge were closed to hikers and backpackers on and off for months and most (but not all) have only recently reopened. Several key trails forming the Hatfield, like the Moffett Creek, are still closed due to wildfire damage. Even when (or if) every section reopens, much of the landscape it traverses will be very different from what I found in 2010. Sad to say, this is another adventure I’m glad I had the opportunity to do before it was rearranged by a wildfire.

“Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.” (Jane Austen)
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8 comments

  1. One has to accept that change is inevitable. But the speed and scale of these terrible impacts to our forests are really, really hard to come to grips with. 😦

    Like

  2. So beautiful…and a valuable and bittersweet record of the past. It’s hard for me to accept the devastating changes we’ve seen over just two decades in some of our favorite places.

    Like

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