Friday, November 4, 2011

Historic Highway

Last Sunday I reeaallllyy wanted to go hiking.  It'd been a couple of weeks since I'd done a local hike, and I was itching to get back to my "playground." 

But the weather decided to be uncooperative.  Rain was in Sunday's forecast.  Not just showers, but RAIN!  Soggy, nonstop moisture from the sky.  What's a hiker to do?

Trailhead marker

The answer?  Go east young lady!  East as in the eastern end of the Columbia River Gorge.  The portion of the Gorge past Hood River puts you on the leeward side of the Cascade mountains.  And that generally means drier weather.  Even some sunshine, if you're lucky. 

View of the eastern Gorge

There is a portion of the Historic Columbia River Highway that's been reconstructed as a hiker/biker path near the eastern Gorge town of Mosier.  I'd heard about two abandoned highway tunnels that had been dug out, totally restored, and were now part of the trail.  The engineer in me loves tunnels, so I decided this was the day go and to check it out.  Plus, if it starts raining, I have someplace dry to escape!

Fall colors along the trail

The Historic Columbia River Highway was America's first scenic highway.  In its heyday, the road snaked through the Oregon side of  the Columbia River Gorge, between the towns of Troutdale and The Dalles, a distance of 73 miles. It was built between 1913 and 1922.  Samuel C. Lancaster, the engineer who designed the highway, purposely laid out the route so that it would access all the natural beauty spots in the Gorge.  He designed beautiful bridges, stone walls, viaducts, and several tunnels with windows built inside, so travelers would not miss any of the scenery.  It was an engineering challenge, to fit a road through the steep, rocky cliffs of the Gorge, but Lancaster found a way.

Eastern portal of the Mosier Twin Tunnels

In the beginning, the highway was hailed as an engineering marvel.  Thousands of autos traveled the highway enjoying the vistas.  But as traffic increased through the 1930s, the tunnels became narrow and dangerous.  Construction of a new interstate highway at river level began after World War Two.  By the early 1950s, most of the traffic had been transferred to the new route, and many portions of the Old Historic Highway were abandoned or destroyed.

Inside between tunnel one and two

In the late 1980s, several people and organizations recognized this loss, and lobbied the State Highway Dept and State Legislature to preserve the portions of the Historic Highway that remained.  Since 1987, the State of Oregon has worked to restore the Historic Columbia River Highway, opening small sections at at time.  As of this year, 62 of the original 73 miles are now open to travel either by motor vehicle or foot and bicycle.  The driveable sections of the old road have been restored to their original 1920s appearance.

Columbia River view from the tunnel's window

One of these sections of restored Historic Highway lies between the towns of Hood River and Mosier, my destination for today.  This portion of the highway has been converted into a hiker/biker path.  As mentioned earlier, one of the highlights of this trail is the Mosier twin tunnels, two old highway tunnels that have been restored to near-original condition.  The tunnels feature two beautifully arched windows that allow visitors wonderful views of the Gorge.

Rock guard structure at the western end

After driving through torrential rain most of the way, and thinking several times "what the heck am I doing?", I arrived at the trailhead.  Minutes after stepping out of my car, the rain stopped.  Taking this as a sign, I shouldered my backpack and camera and headed out.

More trail scenery

I couldn't have picked a better time of the year to introduce myself to this trail.  The leaves were in full fall regalia, and the scenery was amazing.  The cloudy skies, which I'd cursed all the way to the trailhead, provided me with nice light for photos.  I moseyed my way down the nice wide asphalt path, making frequent "Kodak moment" stops.

Lovely fall colors

Some of the old highway features, such as white picket fences and rock walls, were restored along this portion of the path.  In a couple of places side paths split off from the path, leading to overlook areas.  The clouds lifted enough to provide me Gorge views in both directions.

Trail overlook

It didn't take very long and I came upon the famous tunnels.  Oh, and they were spectacular!  As amazing as they were to build, I was even more impressed that they were uncovered and restored for a second time.  There are two tunnels in line.  The first one is 288 feet long, followed almost immediately by a second, shorter tunnel.  A concrete roof now connects the tunnels.  The two windows in the first tunnel have been reopened.  And the view from those windows to the river down below was breathtaking.  For safety reasons, bars now cover the openings, but I stuck my camera through the narrow slots and got some images anyway.

Self portrait along the trail

While I was at the tunnel, the rain started up again.  So I just delayed my departure, and hung out inside taking more photos.  At the western end of the second tunnel there is a steep rock wall that has a reputation for being unstable.  As part of the tunnel reconstruction work, a concrete shed was built for 700 feet beyond the second tunnel.  This structure protects path users from falling rocks.  Because the I-84 freeway and a mainline railroad track is directly below this point, the structure had to be designed to catch and capture any large rocks that fall from the slope above.  So this thing is pretty beefy.  I felt very safe walking under it's massive concrete roof and beams.

A blaze of yellow

After the rainstorm let up, I continued my walk, exploring the path beyond the tunnels.  Thick trees dressed up in bright yellow leaves drooped over the trail creating a narrow corridor.

Patchwork quilt of color

After the second overlook beyond the tunnel (which was a particularly scenic view featuring a patchwork-quilt of oranges, yellows, and greens) I decided to head back to my car.  The day was getting late, and the sky looked ready to let loose again.

Mosier totem with Coyote Wall in the distance

I made it back to my car ahead of the next cloudburst.  I hadn't brought much of a lunch, and it being way past noon, I was mighty hungry.  Before heading home I stopped in the town of Mosier and loaded up on junk food from the tiny general store.  Coming out of the store, I spied this cool totem pole across the street.  The sun came out for a final blast and lit up the area.  You could see Coyote Wall, across the river on the Washington side, and it was dressed up nicely for fall.  A beautiful end to my hike.

So even though the weather was discouraging, I managed to find a calm place amongst the storm.  And learned a bit of history to boot.  So next time it's raining in Portland, I'm heading east!



  1. Beautiful pictures as always! Looks like it was a pretty nice day too.

  2. Beautiful photos and the history was really interesting. I've never been to that part of the country but it sure looks beautiful.

  3. Awesome! Thanks so much for the suggestion, Linda -- I will have to check this out!


Don't be shy! Please leave a comment.