Tooth Rock Portage Road/Gorge Trail/HCRH Trail 4-21-21

This forum is used to share your experiences out on the trails.
Post Reply
User avatar
Posts: 2294
Joined: August 1st, 2011, 7:51 am
Location: SW Portland

Tooth Rock Portage Road/Gorge Trail/HCRH Trail 4-21-21

Post by bobcat » April 23rd, 2021, 10:25 am

In keeping with the project to check out all trails in the Gorge as they reopen after the 2017 fire, I set out from Cascade Locks and walked west on the Gorge Trail. The first part of this section, between the PCT and the junction with Historic Columbia River Highway at the tunnel under the freeway (finished in 1998), was always a bit of an orphan trail, little hiked, and now with much of the canopy burned off, an even more inviting paradise for poison oak. There’s one rocky viewpoint, which takes in the landslide faces of Table Mountain and Greenleaf Peak, before the descent to the HCRHT.

Fence above I-84, Gorge Trail.jpg
Vine maple flowers, Gorge Trail.jpg
Poison oak climbing, Gorge Trail.jpg
Defile on the Gorge Trail.jpg
Table Mountain to Greenleaf Peak, Gorge Trail.jpg
Scouler's heliotrope, Gorge Trail.jpg

The HCRHT here served as the Gorge Trail for several years until components were engineered for a through paved trail. I passed, apparently, through Sheridan State Park, and then hit the area of the big January 2021 landslide, which buried the trail only two weeks after it had reopened. I paused at the beginning of the Ruckel Creek Trail, sadly overgrown and a tough trail to restore now that over three years have gone by. On the way back, I paid homage to Ruckel Creek Falls in its shady, cool wood of maples.

Line of Douglas-firs, Gorge-HCRH Trail.jpg
Sheridan State Park, Gorge-HCRH Trail.jpg
Junction with the Ruckel Creek Trail, Gorge-HCRH Trail.jpg
Ruckel Creek Falls, Ruckel Creek, Historic Columbia River Highway.jpg
Big slide January 2021, Gorge-HCRH Trail.jpg

I then took the Gorge Trail up around the deserted Eagle Creek Campground, paid more homage to Big John at the car-less day use trailhead (Big John, a 1916 artifact, was the Forest Service’s first flush toilet restroom), squeezed around the barriers at the fish hatchery, and hiked up the off-ramp over the HCHRT’s Eagle Creek Bridge, with its salmon-watching overlook.

Fading trillium, Historic Columbia River Highway.jpg
Historic restroom Big John, Eagle Creek Day Use Area.jpg
Eagle Creek Bridge, Historic Columbia River Highway.jpg
Observation deck, Eagle Creek Bridge, Historic Columbia River Highway.jpg

To take the 0.7 mile portage road, I knew it would best to start at the west end, so continued up the “staircase” to pick up the HCHRT as it passed around Tooth Rock. Approaching the power substation east of the Tooth Rock Trailhead, I spotted a small “Tanner Butte Trail” sign that survived the fire (you wouldn’t necessarily see it if you weren’t looking) and surveyed the prospect of the portage traverse.

Eagle Creek Staircase, Historic Columbia River Highway.jpg
The Eagle's Nest, Historic Columbia River Highway.jpg
Martindale's desert parsley, Historic Columbia River Highway.jpg
Rosy plectritis, Historic Columbia River Highway.jpg
Freeway and dam, Historic Columbia River Highway.jpg
Signage, Old Portage Road.jpg
West end of Old Portage Road, Historic Columbia River Highway.jpg

The old wagon road, constructed in 1856, was the first on the Oregon side to circumvent the Cascades on the Columbia by heading up over the back side of Tooth Rock, at whose base the Columbia lapped in times of high water. It was a 425-foot climb for the wagons from river level, begun by one W.R. Kilborn in 1855 and improved by Joseph Ruckel and Harrison Olmstead.

"The advantages of the newly constructed portage road were set out in the ... advertisement which ran for a short time in the Portland Weekly Oregonian, commencing with the issue of February 9, 1856, and a news item in that issue stated that "a new road around the portage of the Cascades on the Oregon side has been completed and goods are now being transported on this side with safety and dispatch." (F.B. Gill: Oregon’s First Railway, the Oregon Portage Railroad at the Cascades of the Columbia River. 1924)

By 1859, a portage railroad (the first railroad in Oregon) had been built around the base of Tooth Rock using a trestle, However, part of the trestle was swept away by spring floods that same year. By 1861, the railroad had pretty much replaced the wagon road as the main means of transportation around the Cascades.

Hikers, however, used the portage road to access Wauna Viewpoint long before the construction of the Gorge Trail in the area. When vehicle access up Tanner Creek Road was closed in the early 21st century, the portage road became a somewhat shorter way to hike up to the Tanner Butte Trailhead and appeared in several guidebooks. It was never an official trail, however, and no attention has been paid to it since the fire.

A few steps in, I immediately realized I had come woefully unprepared (but not unprepared enough to contemplate turning back). I had known there would be many downed trees, and of course had my pruning saw with me. I also had long baggy cargo pants, perfect for wading through all kinds of vegetation. What I did not have were a machete, thick gloves, and a long-sleeved shirt. The old road bed is in its fourth spring of untended rampant growth. Elderberry are now six feet high, and the willow and thimbleberry are four feet. These are easy to brush around. Everything, however, is laced together with an unholy alliance of thorny vines, namely trailing blackberry, Armenian blackberry, and the bloodiest of all, blackcap raspberry, all sun lovers that flourish in disturbed areas when there’s no shady canopy. So it was just me and my pruning saw, wielded as a machete, slashing, hacking, parrying almost every step of the way. Luckily, it’s spring and the new vines were soft and easy to dispatch although my hands and forearms were running little red rivulets by the time I was done.

Bottom of the Old Portage Road.jpg
Portaged objects, Old Portage Road.jpg
Basalt cave, Old Portage Road.jpg
Wauna Point from the Old Portage Road.jpg
View to the Old Portage Road.jpg

I made very slow progress upward, also sawing off obstructing branches on fallen trees. I saw no sign of the connector that branched the short distance up to Tanner Creek Road. At the high point of the track, I headed up to Tooth Rock’s jagged dentures for lunch, enjoying the break but mindful of the summit’s welcoming skirt of poison oak. The east descent of the track was easier. A rootball has taken out most of the road bed at one point, but there’s also a relatively unobstructed stretch of about 200 yards (there was still a canopy). I couldn’t find the old descent path from the road to the HCRHT above the staircase near Eagle Creek, but it’s just a short skitter down the scree.

On Tooth Rock, Old Portage Road.jpg
Descending the Old Portage Road.jpg
Looking back at Tooth Rock, Old Portage Road.jpg
Lower part of the Old Portage Road.jpg

The CRGNSA needs to take this one on and make it official (including the short connector up to Tanner Creek Road and the Gorge Trail). There's a bench already provided, and the main work is the bucking and brushing, best done in the off season when there are fewer other trail projects.

User avatar
Posts: 1551
Joined: May 28th, 2008, 10:03 pm
Location: Southeast Portland

Re: Tooth Rock Portage Road/Gorge Trail/HCRH Trail 4-21-21

Post by Charley » April 23rd, 2021, 7:00 pm

Do you think Tanner Creek Road will ever re-open? To either auto or pedestrian traffic? There's one of those post-Eagle-Creek-Fire "Area closed to all use" signs on the gate.

I'm just guessing that there's little chance (unfortunately) that there will be any rehabilitation of older road grades like the Portage Road, considering how overgrown Trail 400 is, and that even as important a route as Tanner Creek Road remains closed to use.

User avatar
retired jerry
Posts: 13517
Joined: May 28th, 2008, 10:03 pm

Re: Tooth Rock Portage Road/Gorge Trail/HCRH Trail 4-21-21

Post by retired jerry » April 23rd, 2021, 7:26 pm

The road was closed before the fire

User avatar
Posts: 2294
Joined: August 1st, 2011, 7:51 am
Location: SW Portland

Re: Tooth Rock Portage Road/Gorge Trail/HCRH Trail 4-21-21

Post by bobcat » April 23rd, 2021, 7:42 pm

It's been closed to public vehicular traffic for about 20 years I think. As far as opening the Tanner Butte Trail goes, I haven't heard any mention. However, TKO has begun work on the Wauna Viewpoint Trail. I've heard mention of Bell Creek, Oneonta, and Nesmith Point but now there are all these other places like the Clackamas to refurbish.

It's possible that for some of the real backcountry trails, they'll just open them and let boots do the work (as with Casey Creek Trail).

Fixing the portage road should be considered seriously since it's in an "open" area and is a viable connection at least to Wauna Viewpoint as well as a good little loop around Tooth Rock. No slide areas or steep scree to deal with.

Post Reply