Thursday, January 17, 2013

In Search of the Oregon Skyline Trail - July 2012

"The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray."

-Robert Burns

For thousands of years, humans have loved, lived, and died in the place we now call the Oregon Cascade Mountains.  Cultures have shifted, men's goals have changed, even the very fabric of the climate itself is tied to the battle of cause and effect that rattles through the ages.  For the majority of this time, our species has lived in balance with the land.  Only at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution have our priorities and even our very connection to the Earth shifted so drastically.

What separates Man from all other creatures?  Our inquisitive nature is coupled with our ability to construct, limited only by our imagination.  Civilization has seen the coming and going of great empires, holding fast in the glory of a limited sun and seeming to pass almost at once from these very shores of our tangible world.

"What once was" was never truly there, as an isolated attitude or artifact.  What we experience is always a blending of new and old, a constant remaking of our world as even our own bodies are eventually reduced to only so much dust.

Such is the case with the Oregon Skyline Trail, and later a road of the same name.

Newspapers are a culture's unwitting litmus, recording often unflattering history as it unfolds.  Like a camera set off accidentally, they tell a story without the usual portrait primping and phony smiles.  The Oregonian newspaper has been telling the tale of the Beaver State since 1850, reporting on the comings and goings of generations.  We can ask "what was important to an Oregonian of 1910?", and have the old archives answer back.

We have been collectively escaping civilization since our beginnings; only in nature can we find what we need, both physical and spiritually.  Each culture has left its mark on the land while fulfilling this basic set of needs - to eat, to find purpose and connection.

In the area we now know as Mount Hood, Native People have lived for thousands of years.  They came after the vast ice sheets retreated for a time, to celebrate the bounty of Wy'east and grace the sacred sites scattered across her flanks.  Europeans came next, with their baskets of smallpox and Manifest Destiny, conquering a great wilderness once thought limitless.  Like a passing heartbeat, a way of life went with the wind.  Soon the ancient and untracked wilderness gave way as homesteads cleared virgin forest.  Wilderness that had never felt the bite of a steel axe was soon to give way to plow and beasts of burden.

However, even in the early 20th Century vast areas of unexplored and untapped wild lands remained.  They were too far from the earliest flailings of a grid, remote and mysterious to most Oregonians.  A horrible World War had come and gone, followed by unparalleled prosperity in our nation's history.  This was a time for new ideas and innovations the likes we have never seen, when almost anything seemed possible.  And yet, our species was still unable to shake itself from the powerful call of the wild.

During the 1920s, Americans witnessed the first stirrings of a wilderness movement.  Conservation became a new concept embraced by all but the most greed filled and jaded industrialist.  Camping, once thought of as mere survival by the tough-callused pioneers, had now evolved into a leisure activity enjoyed by young and old alike.  The era of the automobile had arrived, destroying some dreams and building others.  No other era in the 20th century was responsible for reshaping our collective consciousness and how we think about Nature itself.

The Oregon Skyline Trail was a direct product of this era.  For over 260 miles, a route was dreamed over the backbone of the Cascade Range, from Mount Hood to Crater Lake - no small feat in its day.  
Much of the trail wasn't built new - it was already there, built by Indians, Trappers, Explorers, and later by the US Forest Service.  The great feat was improving a consolidated route, well marked and fit for hiking or horses.  The first map and guide was released to the public in 1921, and the Oregon Skyline Trail was now open for business.  A great dream had become reality.

7-24-21 Oregonian

1921 Oregon Skyline Trail Map

Much of the history of the Mt. Hood National Forest is hard to come by, and the Skyline Trail is no exception.  Other than a couple of maps and briefly tantalizing newspaper snippets, the Trail has come and gone, rapidly fading back into history.  It was constructed as the highest quality high mountain trail ever built, with horse camps, ranger stations, and telephone communication strung along the route in strategic locations. Wide as a highway through the old firs, it was sure to revolutionize how we interact with wilderness.
  But something else was on the horizon.

1928 Oregonian ad

The May 8th, 1927 Oregonian reports:
High along the summit of the Cascade Mountains, extending from Mt. Hood on the north to Crater Lake on the south, there runs the Skyline Trail, one of the most remarkable and at the same time one of the least known scenic routes of the far west.  The Skyline Trail, which is, perhaps, unique in the manner in which it traverses an unbroken stretch of mountain summit and in the wide variety of country it practically unknown to native Oregonians.  Although a trip is a challenge to the imagination of even the dullest of urbanites, the Skyline Trail has never taken hold of the public fancy in the Webfoot State.
There are several reasons, perhaps, for the fact that the trail in past years has not been frequented by more than a handful of persons annually.  In the first place, the age is one of the automobiles, and the habit of making long trips by foot or horseback has long since disappeared.  Then too, the entire trip takes at least 15 days by horseback, and about a month by foot.  It is no journey for weaklings...

5-8-27 Oregonian

1929 signaled the end of this Age of Prosperity, with a Great Depression soon ravaging American society.  Already the writing was on the wall for the Oregon Skyline Trail.  Starving and destitute people have more on their minds than recreation; theirs was often a mission of survival, when families faced an uncertain future and small children frequently went to bed hungry.

11-12-30 Oregonian

New life was breathed into the Skyline Trail in the 1930s, with the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps bursting at the seams with healthy and strong young men eager for work.  A few of their countless projects was improving trails, roads, and facilities in our adolescent National Forests.  Perhaps she wouldn't die after all.

1936 Oregon Skyline Trail map

1950s postcard of the Skyline Trail near Three Sisters

In spite of this infusion, the trail was not to be.  The Skyline Trail languished in obscurity for years, its original route shifting constantly to clear the way for widespread logging.  Eventually it was either abandoned or absorbed into the now famous Pacific Crest Trail, heading from Mexico to Canada.
There is no further mention of the trail in newspapers, except for one final article in 1966:

"Dejected and soggy we climbed into the bags and lay silent."

What really did in the Oregon Skyline trail?  Why did she disappear after so much work, planning, and accolades?  Of course it is a combination of factors: depression, war, urbanity.  But the primary force that did the trail in was certainly the automobile.  Americans had fallen in love with car, and lost their favor with walking - the most basic of activities had now become a burden.

5-8-27 Oregonian, with irony as advertisement

As early as 1920 and at the onset of the Oregon Skyline Trail, "good roads" boosters were already enthusiastically extolling the virtues of a wonderful new way of travelling the Cascades backbone - The Oregon Skyline ROAD.  Why walk when you can drive?

1-1-20 Oregonian "Road Held Practical"

The article boldly states:
Imagine an auto road extending 200 miles along the crest of a lofty mountain range at altitudes of 5000 to 6000 feet, skirting mountain lakes of deepest blue, weaving between snow capped peaks, traversing meadows dotted with alpine flowers, and plunging into somber forests of fir and hemlock.  Would not such a road be marvelous!

 1-1-20 Oregonian

1-16-21 Oregonian, showing a map of the proposed route

1-1-21 Oregonian

 2-8-25 Oregonian, first seven miles of road completed 

"Developing Mt. Hood" 

12-31-25 Oregonian shows the road boosters still hard at work:
"some day in the future this artery is to become of the most noted highways in the state or Oregon"

Soon the Skyline Road was completed, eclipsing the venerable Oregon Skyline Trail.  The car is now king.

8-20-39 Oregonian - the last time the Skyline Road is mentioned in the newspaper

In the end, the Oregon Skyline Road had only managed to eclipse its own shadow.  Facing ever growing urban expansion and unchecked logging, the Skyline Road faded into oblivion, supplanted by newer and better roads, most often built with clearcuts in mind.  This first-modern high Cascades road became in stages magnificent, then quaint, and finally obsolete.  By the 1960s it was all but absorbed into the vast Forest Service road system, with many older sections abandoned entirely.

But what is left of the old Skyline Country?  In particular, are there any traces left in the Mt. Hood National Forest?  With such dynamic forces shaping wilderness in our era, I didn't hold out much hope.  Frequently these expeditions have been a frustrating waste of time; a lot changes in 70 odd years.
  In July 2012 I set out to find answers.

Lemiti Country 

1930 Mt. Hood National Forest map

The Oregon Skyline in the Mt. Hood area is part of the "dry side" of the Cascades, the rain shadow of lodgepole pines along the western boundary of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.  High (over 4000') and dry in an area prone to fires, there was a very good chance that very little remained of the past.  Besides the popular Olallie Lakes Scenic Area, this unlikely cowboy country receives only a few visitors.  Far removed from the Clackamas River rainforests, it always seems just out of reach.  What would I find up in this lonely land?  Even the name Lemiti seemed romantic and exotic; what did this forgotten Chinook term even mean?

strike one for romantic notions

With a week of provisions and a fat stack of old maps, I headed for the unknown.

excerpt of 1936 Oregon Skyline Trail showing Lemiti Country

Crossroads of any sort, and especially of a lost age are the best bet for uncovering such mysteries.  Lemiti Guard Station would be a perfect place to begin this expedition.  A mystery in itself, the guard station leaves everything to the imagination - "where did it sit" or "what did it look like" were questions that peppered my imagination.  Comparing other similar sites in the MHNF, it was probably a cabin built of local materials and survived into the 1950s before it collapsed or burned.  Other than this conjecture and the old maps, I had nothing to go on - not even a photograph.  But in its heyday it was surely a busy hub of activity.

1917 Mazama's winter hiking expedition thruough Lemiti Country

I set out under hot summer skies to bother the old ghosts of Lemiti.  Cruising smoothly along the sweetly flowing Clackamas on this fine summer day, I soon began a merciless climb into dry stands of lodgepoles, onto newer roads that have already begun to decompose.  Nothing lasts forever.

  Before I know it, I am at my destination.  But something is wrong: the trees are all dead.  Almost all of them, bleached white snags, some with critical bark still clinging in sections, but all very much drained of life.  They have been dead for 10 years or more.

What has happened to this forest?

D. ponderosae, or the Mountain Pine Bark Beetle

The mountain pine beetle (MPB) Dendroctonus ponderosae, is a species of bark beetle native to the forests of western North America from Mexico to central British Columbia. It has a hard black exoskeleton, and measures about 5 mm, about the size of a grain of rice.
Mountain pine beetles inhabit ponderosa, lodgepole, Scotch and limber pine trees. Normally, these insects play an important role in the life of a forest, attacking old or weakened trees, and speeding development of a younger forest. 
It may be the largest forest insect blight ever seen in North America. Climate change is said by some to have contributed to the size and severity of the outbreak, and the outbreak itself may, with similar infestations, have significant effects on the capability of northern forests to remove greenhouse gas (CO2) from the atmosphere.
Mountain pine beetles affect pine trees by laying eggs under the bark. The beetles introduce blue stain fungus into the sapwood that prevents the tree from repelling and killing the attacking beetles with tree pitch flow. The fungus also blocks water and nutrient transport within the tree. On the tree exterior, this results in popcorn-shaped masses of resin, called "pitch tubes", where the beetles have entered. The joint action of larval feeding and fungal colonization kills the host tree within a few weeks of successful attack (the fungus and feeding by the larvae girdles the tree, cutting off the flow of water and nutrients). When the tree is first attacked, it remains green. Usually within a year of attack, the needles will have turned red. This means the tree is dying or dead, and the beetles have moved to another tree. In three to four years after the attack, very little foliage is left, so the trees appear grey.
As beetle populations increase or more trees become stressed because of drought or other causes, the population may quickly increase and spread. Healthy trees are then attacked, and huge areas of mature pine stands may be threatened or killed. Warm summers and mild winters play a role in both insect survival and the continuation and intensification of an outbreak. Adverse weather conditions (such as winter lows of -40°) can reduce the beetle populations and slow the spread, but the insects can recover quickly and resume their attack on otherwise healthy forests.
Courtesy of Wikipedia

I haven't spent much time in Lemiti Country, and the sight of a completely dead forest is stark and a bit shocking.  The trunks and branches sway stiffly in the hot blue sky; the very dry summer conditions seem to make the trees excessively brittle as the limbs creak and rub against each other like dry bones.  The forest is tragic in death, but somehow remarkably beautiful.  So beautiful in fact that I am immediately at peace.

At an ulikely and unmarked junction, I eventually find the correct route, and am soon on an original remnant of the earliest incarnation of the Oregon Skyline Road.  It only survives for a couple miles before hitting a trench and berm, but I have found that damned old road.  I am quickly transported back to an earlier age in a way the road's designers would never have imagined.

The Oregon Skyline Road

1920s Mt. Hood Area (courtesy of Old Oregon Photos)

Skyline Road 

 1920s postcard


"rough road"

stonework and steel viaduct over Lemiti Creek

I find where I think the guard station used to be, and set up camp at a crossroads to nowhere.  In 1930, this road went to Sisi Fire Lookout.  Now it goes nowhere, ending unceremoniously at a berm, supplanted by a later road and the throes of the modern world.  Many artifacts confirm this hunch - a surprise in this dead and otherwise unremarkable woods. 

 Lemiti Guard Station, if you squint maybe you'll see it

 phone line insulator for the guard station telephone

fire ring sure to have been used by Forest Rangers

Sisi Road, dead and blocked by downfall

phone line at the cabin site, or possibly used as a horse corral

stonework creek crossing

I am dazzled by these findings as the hot summer sun slips into night, bathing trees without leaves in a rich evening glow.  I am alone but not lonely, sitting among all this beauty and decay.  

As the new dawn breaks, I wake invigorated - in spite of a couple early dawn yahoos shouting from truck to truck.  They are no doubt woodcutters, irritated that I have blocked Sisi Road, and unaware that it is already blocked by many down trees.  They soon drive off in a cloud and I am left to my peace.

After a simple breakfast of oatmeal and hot tea, I am ready to see if the past is willing to give up any of her secrets.  I soon discover that due to the pine beetle outbreak, this is a forest locked in time.  Aside from the dead forest, little has changed since the Skyline Trail was an active route.  There are many clues and pieces of the past; when was the last time someone looked?  Can an old nail act as a time machine?

a lost sign once graced this portion of the Skyline Road 

another old signpost; too bad the signs are gone, long gone

According to the old maps, Lemiti Camp once provided Skyline Trail travelers with water and horse feed and a surely tranquil place to camp.  Only, each map shows the camp in a different location and miles apart.  After a fruitless search, I eventually and unexpectedly find the remains of the old camp along a narrow strip of meadow fronting Sisi Road.  Excited as a little kid, I explore the camp searching for clues in the deep flowers.  The past opens up like summer blossoms, revealing her secrets.

 missing sign and old phone line

 route of the Skyline Trail

 insulator and other rusty hardware

 nail and an old blaze

 horse watering trough

 site of yet another missing sign

 collapsed outhouse from another age

and back to the earth she goes

Lemiti Camp

Unfortunately the route ends in 1/4 mile at the "new" road.

Does it continue on the other side?

  another adventure for another day

I spend the rest of the afternoon basking in this high mountain beauty, finding flowers and swatting horseflies.

a simple dinner of sausage and beans finishes off this lovely day

The next morning brings more at peace than I've ever experienced.  There is something special contained in this forgotten dead forest; maybe it was just my imagination and enthusiasm for these rare relics of an age already gone, and for a forest to be locked in time in such a way.
I knew Don would be joining me later in the afternoon, and I didn't want the last of the solitude to go wasted.  

"Let's try to identify these meadow flowers", I say to no one in particular.  The variety is amazing and I didn't know many of them by sight.  Perhaps some would be useful to humans?  

slender blue penstemon Penstemon proceris 

mountain cat's ear Calochortus subalpinus

 graceful cinquefoil Potentelia gracilis

yarrow Achillia millefolium

 Douglas' water hemlock Cicuta douglasii

 buttercup Ranunculus repens

 Idaho blue eyed grass Sisyrinchium idahoense

Canadian butterweed  Senecio pauperculus

 pearly everlasting Anaphalis margaritacea

tiger lilly Lilium columbianum  

Menzie's larkspur Delphinium menziesii

And wouldn't you know it?  None are edible, and some are even deadly.

And then Don arrives.

Don is a real backwoods master, and there's no telling what we might find together.  He is one of the keepers of the lost arts of the woods, and I am grateful for his presence.  His quiet and friendly patience is welcome after a couple days of solitude.  We share a few beers and lively conversation as we welcome the night.  We talk and dream of  the fleets of cool cars that used to rumble down this very road, into the skyline and beyond, hauling guys in red wool and skinny girls with bobbed hair and knobby knees.  This vision of the past was once thought modern and new; now it only graces our imagination as a relic.

The night falls, followed by a hasty summer morning.  We awake refreshed and determined to find the original 1920s route of the Oregon Skyline Trail.  Is it still out there, sleeping along meadows under these dead trees?

The forest has a uniform, almost monotonous quality due to the many standing snags, ghostly under the blue. It is very easy to get turned around.  

Suddenly, we find a very old blaze.  And then we discover the Skyline Trail, unfolding like a living ghost.  Delighted, we walk into the past.

blaze leading the way through many down trees and dwindling tread

 the trail becomes clearer

 soon we discover a distinctive triple-blaze signifying the Oregon Skyline Trail

Deep in the forest wilds, a highway-sized trail opens up.  How long has it been abandoned?  

 and the forest swallows it back up

What happened to those pretty girls on horseback?

 how strange to see a tread this wide, especially so isolated and nowhere near roads

The trail comes and goes as the past gives way to the new.

At times the route is quite vague and difficult to follow, but we are able to slowly piece most of it together.  After a few miles, we discover that the trail ends at a massive clearcut.  It is gone from this point north, for a couple of miles at least.  Why would such rich history be eradicated so thoughtlessly? 
With of course no answer, we head back to 2012.

studying an old blaze pointing the way

straight as an arrow through the lodgepoles

As we return to camp, we discover a section of Skyline Trail that we mistook for a road, bringing us to more artifacts.  Other than old maps, these are the only proof that the trail even existed.

 USFS Skyline Trail sign swallowed up by a tree

 A cabin floor?  Barn?

abandoned fire ring at trailside

After a quick lunch and still glowing with excitement, we decide to try to find more of the Skyline Trail.  Heading down Sisi Road, we cross the crumbling asphalt of a less ancient age and head off into the piney meadows.

The going is quite rough, with many huge trees to climb over.  Sharp crisp branches seem eager to draw blood.

  But it is all worth it, for soon we are back on the Skyline Trail.  Or, what's left of it after nearly a century of decay.  In spite of this, it is clearly THE trail.

 that triple blaze again

But just as quickly we lose it in a vague meadow.  Time to head back.
We are fortunate indeed to be shown so much history.  What a gift!  

Our final day is spent exploring a secondary route of the Oregon Skyline Trail, from Lemiti to a series of meadows located in the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.  After our recent discoveries, I didn't hold up much hope.

 another 1930s era road returning to the dust

After a crazy cross-country stumble, we surprisingly discover the trail.  Someone has been here before us, as the route has been flagged in some parts.  Otherwise, the trail is abandoned like the other sections, left to decay and return to the soil.

 yet another triple blaze

 Did these fasteners hold the white cloth markers mentioned in a 20s newpaper article?

remnants of a Skyline Trail sign

Tired, sweaty, and deeply fulfilled, we pack up and head down and out, back to our modern world and away from these ancient trees with their mysteries held firmly in check.  We have scratched and scoured our bodies, but we have only scratched the surface secrets of the Oregon Skyline Trail and her relations.  It will take a lifetime to piece it all together, and by then, what will remain?  Unfortunately, nothing is static.

It is both amazing and disappointing to see what has become of the distant past.  Time just doesn't stand still, and the very nature of wild places means a constant renewal and upheaval must occur.  Without such change, the Earth would soon smother in her own waste.  All of these answered mysteries serve to light the fire of our imaginations, perhaps the only true way to travel to another time and age.  Sometimes the softly swaying trees speak volumes.  Maybe there is more to a rusty nail than meets the eye.  Maybe the perceived past is just a thin veil away after all.  

Since I created this article, there has been some speculation whether the triple-blazes seen around Lemiti Country are significant to the Skyline Trail.  While I have no proof of this association, I have not seen this style of blazing anywhere else in Clackamas Country, and in such profusion.  If anyone has any clarification then please let me know.

Also: thanks to Cheryl for this photo of the Lemiti Guard station!  It is very exciting to see after so much speculation.  I'm surprised that the area was much more open in 1934.

I'm pretty confident that the "after" photo is in the correct location, based on that post and the lay of the land.



And can you believe Cheryl found another photo of old Lemiti?  The MHNF has a history goddess floating above the ages.

circa 1920; most likely Skyline Trail travelers

Thank you!  I will continue to update this article as I receive new information.




  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this article Bob. Thanks for taking the time and effort to post it!


  2. Thank you for the kind words. It has been stewing in my mind since last summer and I had to get it down eventually...
    It is really just scratching the surface - there is still so much mystery attached to this old lost trail, but it is still very rewarding tracking down the pieces. We'll see what next summer reveals!

  3. Hello Bob. Just today, I finished reading a thorough account of 5 hiking trips my mother and her family took on the Oregon Skyline Trail in 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, and 1937. I'm an avid backpacker myself, so I've been thinking about retracing her steps. This trip account of yours gave me a close up view of the present day trail. It was a wonderful read. Thank you for taking the time to write this very informative and interesting story.


    1. Dear Don,
      may I ask if the journals are those of the Collier family? I am at present writing a research masters upon the OST.

  4. Wow! I can only dream of such a trip...time hasn't been kind to abandoned trails. Some of the other Oregon stretches of the Skyline are still in use however.
    If you have these journals in electronic form, then I'm sure Trail Advocates of the Clackamas would love to add them to their historical archives!
    And thanks a bunch for your comments too.

  5. I've been fascinated about finding more information and history on the Oregon Skyline Rd ever since I discovered the old sections that cris-cross past the "new" FS42 road. Wonderful old road to ride on a motorcycle. The baddst sections are the BEST!!. Thanks for the journey!!

  6. Bob, you are a man after my own heart, sir.
    Fred Cleator, USFS recreation engineer 1919-1943, first imagined the Skyline Trail when camped at Summit Lake near Minto Pass on August 1, 1920. I'd like to send you his Field Notebook entry and a photo of the cloth trail marker you mention, both from National Archives. And more maps etc!

  7. The Skyline Trail system would seem to be an excellent candidate for reviving as a statewide network of trails open to both hikers and mountain bikers, given that the system was originally built to equestrian standards. Anybody open to working on a project to revive the Skyline Trail system for this purpose in time for its 100-year anniversary in 2021?

  8. I have extensive sections about the Skyline Trail on my website at; a good starting page is this one:
    -- Bruce Johnson