Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Barlow Trail - A Hike Back In Time

After a 20-mile run on Saturday, I wanted to do a shorter, less-strenuous-than-normal hike on Sunday.  I've done most of the Mt. Hood area hikes in Sullivan's book - except the hike on Laurel Hill.  It is a fairly short easy hike, which is why I'd never chosen to visit this trail before.  That is, until now!

Yep, the Pioneers passed through here

The trail up Laurel Hill is called the "Pioneer Bridle Trail," a portion of which is the original Barlow Road.  This old pioneer road was converted to a hiking path by the Civilian Conservation Corps workers in 1935.

Bear at trailhead, wanting me to put down my camera and start hiking!

The Barlow Road (or trail) was blazed by Sam Barlow in 1845.  At that time, the pioneers coming west on the Oregon Trail had one option - travel through the Columbia River Gorge to reach Oregon City.  Once they reached the Dalles, the only way in to the promised land was to raft down the treacherous Columbia River.  Many crossed the prairies and deserts, only to perish passing through the Gorge.

Rhodies and dense forest

In the fall of 1845, the Sam Barlow party arrived in the Dalles.  His party learned they would have to wait weeks for passage down the Columbia, and could not afford the high price of food for themselves and the stock.  Sam looked over at Mt. Hood, and decided to try and find an alternate route around the mountain to Oregon  City.  He was joined by 30 other wagons, determined to cross the Cascades before the first snows fell.

Can you believe covered wagons traveled this trail?

Road building was slow.  The pioneers had only axes and saws.  Much of the forest clearing was done by burning.  The group ran out of time and hit snow about halfway through construction, forcing them to abandon their wagons.  They trekked to Oregon City on foot and riding animals, and everyone safely reached Oregon City by Christmas 1845.

My happy pup

The following spring, after the snow had melted, the pioneers returned to claim their wagons.  Sam Barlow successfully petitioned the Provisional legislature for the right to construct a toll road over the mountain.  By August 1846 the road was ready for travelers.  Word that a wagon road had been completed was welcome news to the pioneers.  The toll of 5 dollars a wagon was much less than river passage through the Gorge, and it was claimed that the trip could be made is less than a week, compared to nearly a month by the Gorge route.

The old wagon road

However, the road was no easy trail.  The climb up to Barlow Pass was tough for oxen and travelers who had already trudged 2,000 miles.  The road was a mere path between trees, going up steep grades, and crossing boulder-strewn ravines.  The most difficult part of the journey was the descent.   There was swampy bogs, dense forests, and Laurel Hill.  The grade of Laurel Hill was 60% in some places, more vertical than horizontal.  Wagons had to be unhitched and winched down backwards.  Some pioneers would tie a huge tree to the back of their wagon, hoping it would help provide some braking as they rumbled downhill.

Old highway tunnel

With that history in mind, I started out on the Pioneer Bridle Trail.  The trail is shared with mountain bikers, and right away I ran into three of them zipping down the trail.  But they were the only users I saw all day.

Passin' through the tunnel

The Pioneer Bridle Trail follows parts of the Barlow Trail's ancient roadbed.  After a mile or so, I came upon a section of trail that seemed to be cut into the forest floor.  This, I assumed, was the old trail.  It wasn't very wide, and it was rocky and steep in some parts.  I wouldn't drive my Subaru on a road like this, and I couldn't imagine bumping over it in a covered wagon.  It must've been an awfully rough ride.

Fancy rockwork on the outside of the tunnel

About 2.5-ish miles in, I came upon the remnants of the old Mt. Hood highway.  The Mt. Hood highway was constructed in 1923 over parts of the original Barlow Trail.  Autos were still a fairly new mode of transportation at that time, and the travelers on the Mt. Hood highway endured many of the same rough conditions as the pioneers on the Barlow Trail.  Cars occasionally got stuck, or slid off the often muddy, slick highway.

Remnants of the Mt. Hood Highway

Along the trail was an old rock wall from the highway.  It was still in good shape, even after so many years of disrepair.  And then I came upon an old abandoned tunnel that had been part of the highway.  The trail went right through this tunnel.  Super cool!  The tunnel had some very nice rockwork on both sides, and on top, where the old highway was located.  What a neat thing to find out in the middle of the woods.

Little Zig Zag Falls

I took a side trail to Little Zig Zag Falls. This trail followed the old paved roadway of the Mt. Hood highway.  I came upon a bridge over the Little Zig Zag River that was the original highway bridge.  The bridge was really pretty, and still had its original intricate stonework railings.  Although moss-covered, these railings seemed to be in good shape.

Nice lunch spot at Little Zig Zag Falls

Bear and I followed the trail to Little Zig Zag Falls, and found a nice bench, perfect to sit and enjoy lunch while viewing the falls.  Also, a great vantage point for photographs.  I didn't have my tripod or ND filters with me that day, so the waterfall photos didn't turn out as good as I would have liked.  But I tried anyway!

Flowing cascades

I was surprised by the size and beauty of Little Zig Zag Falls.  The falls weren't overly highlighted on my map, or in my hiking book, so I didn't expect anything spectacular.  But these falls were comparable to any I've seen in the Gorge.  It was a very lovely area!

Bear is havin' a good day

My original plan was to hike the Pioneer Bridge trail to its end at the Enid Lake Snopark.  This was another 1.5 miles one way from my present location at Little Zig Zag Falls.  But the previous day's exertions were beginning to take a toll, and I decided to cut my hike short, and head back.

Another look at those cool bridge railings - they don't make 'em like this anymore!

So Bear and I ambled back down to the trailhead, where I'd parked my car.  The trail hiking back was kind of boring, and it seemed to take a long time for only three miles.  I think my tired state contributed to my impatience to just be done.

Highway sign on US 26

Once back at my car, I remembered that there is a place you can access the actual chute the pioneers used to winch their wagons down Laurel Hill.  This access point is not very far off of the highway.  As a matter of fact, I'd seen the sign many times on my winter trips up to the ski hills.  I decided I had time and energy for one last exploration.

The sign points the way

The trailhead to the chute is a small pull-out on the south side of Hwy 26, big enough for three or four vehicles.   After parking, Bear and I headed up the short trail.  There were lots of signs to point the way.

Top of the chute looking down.

My guidebook mentioned a short trail to the top of the wagon chute.  I took the first trail-like path I saw, and it was steep!  I huffed and puffed up the hill, and near the top intersected with the trail I was supposed to take.  Ooops!

Old Mt. Hood highway. The centerline stripe is still visible.

There was a trail that led me right to the top of the wagon chute.  I looked down at a steep, rocky slope.  I can't believe that pioneers took wagons down something like this!  All I could think was "wow!"  These people were really gutsy.

Bottom of the chute, looking up

After taking in the view, I headed back down, this time on the correct trail.  The trail switchbacked down past some Oregon Trail markers.  Apparently the old wagon route went right through here.  Once back at the bottom, I followed another section of the old abandoned Mt. Hood highway.  The pavement was still intact, but the forest was slowly intruding upon the roadway.

I can't believe wagons traveled down this slope!

Once at the bottom of the hill, I located the lower end of the chute.  I climbed up it a little ways and peered at the slope.  It looked really rocky, steep and dangerous.  Again, I was in total awe of those tough pioneer ancestors that endured so many hardships to make it to Oregon.  They just don't make people like that anymore!

It was good to get out and recon another new trail.  The good thing about all this running is it's forcing me to explore the shorter trails that I usually dismiss.   I'm discovering wonderful things.  Another great day, another great hike.  And a history lesson to boot!


  1. I am running the Heartbreaker 1/2 marathon in Portland OR in February and wanted to squeeze in a hike for my hike 12 states in 2012 challenge. Any suggestions for a great hike close to Portland?

  2. I enjoyed reading about your Barlow Trail hike. It's the most information I've been able to find about hiking some of the Oregon Trail, which I plan to do this July. Would you be able to help me with directions to the exact location of the trial head?

  3. I enjoyed reading about your Barlow Trail hike. It's the most information I've been able to find about hiking some of the Oregon Trail, which I plan to do this July. Would you be able to help me with directions to the exact location of the trial head?

    Sue C.

  4. Sue - The trailhead for this hike is off of Hwy 26 next to Kiwanas Camp road. Email me at and I can send you more info if you'd like.

  5. Great post Linda. I don't know how I missed this one when I read thru your blog. Hmm..... another great sounding hike!


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