RECOMMENDED SEASON: Spring, Summer, Fall
USE: Varies with season
MAPS: Mount Hood National Forest, GeoGraphics Mt. Hood Wilderness
DIRECTIONS: From U.S. Highway 26, turn north on Lolo Pass Road, Forest Road 18. Drive to the pass and watch for trailhead and P.C.T. signs. Or from Hood River take Highway 35 south, turn west at Dee and follow signs toward Lost Lake. Watch for the junction with Lolo Pass Road.
This section of the Pacific Crest Trail connects the feet of Mt. Hood with the Columbia River Gorge. The trail meanders along the ridge between the Bull Run Watershed and the West Fork of Hood River. At four miles you can take a one-mile spur trail to Lost Lake or continue on to Wahtum Lake or even Cascade Locks.
The first 1/4 mile of this trail is an uphill gravely scramble. But then the trail mellows to a rolling tread through a middle-aged fir forest. Thimbleberry, vine and Douglas maples, and huckleberry offer a verdant array of green hues in spring and summer. Wild flowers add pizazz to the scene.
Come September, pack a thermos of soup, some gingerbread and a fresh apple. This is a gorgeous hike on a breezy fall day, when these same plants have warmed their pallet from greens to golds. Vine maple leaves, backlit by low autumn sun, light up the forest shade. In scree fields, the mid-afternoon rays ignite the huckleberry and maples to a radiant red against charcoal-gray basalt.
1920s tourists enjoying the Mt. Hood Loop.
Interestingly, within the first half mile from the pass, another shade of yellow appears in the forest—the yellow of metal warning signs with black letters. They say, "No Trespassing. Bull Run Watershed." So here's a sneaky little secret: although you thought that no one is allowed to go into the Bull Run Watershed, Portland's treasured source of drinking water, by golly you're standing in it!
Okay, technically, you're not in the watershed. The Pacific Crest Trail runs through part of the Bull Run Watershed Management Unit, but it lies outside the watershed. And that technicality matters a lot.
A watershed is an area of land in which all the water that enters it drains to one place. Think of it as a bathtub. In the case of the Bull Run Watershed, all the rain and snow and mist that enters the watershed drains to Bull Run River. To protect that water, there is a buffer area surrounding the watershed that is also part of the Management unit. The P.C.T. is in the buffer, or on the outside rim of the bathtub. To use another plumbing fixture analogy, rain that falls on the trail where you stand drains toward Lost. Lake, not toward Portland's kitchen sinks. On the other side of those yellow signs, you're getting into kitchen sink territory.
While the Management Unit covers nearly 100,000 acres in three counties, the watershed itself covers a bit less than 70,000 acres. Within this pearshaped basin, at 3178 feet elevation, cold clear waters of Bull Run Lake seep through porous rock and drain into the Bull Run River.
Huckleberry foliage ignites the scree fields in autumn.
Portland officials pegged Bull Run as a possible water source way back in 1885. At that time, residents were drawing water from wells, the Willamette River, and local creeks. Portland was trying to shed its rustic "Stumptown" image and citizens realized they needed more reliable drinking water. City officials scouted the area and selected Bull Run watershed. Back then, they couldn't have known the wisdom of that choice.
In just the past ten years, researchers have recognized the unique qualities of old-growth Douglas-fir forests in capturing and purifying water. In addition, oriented as it is from east to west, Bull Run Watershed captures storm clouds as they roll in from the Pacific and traps them at its eastern end, wringing the moisture from them. This one watershed captures as much as 180 inches of precipitation annually, nearly twice that of watersheds to the north and south.
On June 17, 1892, President Benjamin Harrison proclaimed the Bull Run Watershed as a national forest reserve. Within a year, construction workers were running 24 miles of pipeline from the forest to the city. It is hard to imagine the labor involved in such a project, given the tools of the time. Meanwhile, reservoirs were built at high points in the city, one in Washington Park and one on Mt. Tabor, to provide local storage and a gravity feed.
On January 2, 1895, the first Bull Run River water flowed into Portland. The Portland Hotel's menu boasted that it served only Bull Run water to diners in its elegant restaurant. Within two years, health officials saw a phenomenal drop in cases of typhoid fever and the city death rate dropped to a record low.
In this 1920s scene campers brought a bear rug and victrola.
To guard water purity, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Trespass Act in 1904, prohibiting entry into the watershed except for official business. In 1912, timber tycoon Simon Benson donated brass four-bowl drinking fountains that still bubble Bull Run water throughout the Portland downtown area. The same year, Gresham began buying water from Portland. By 1929, the city constructed its first dam on the Bull Run River. A second dam was added in 1962 and other cities purchased Bull Run water for their citizens' use.
In 1958, the Forest Service reopened the area for "multiple use," including recreation and logging. The watershed was logged for over twenty years before a lawsuit forced Forest Service officials to rethink their management of the watershed. In 1977 the Management Unit designation was established into law. A 1996 law further restricted logging. Today, neither the logging trucks nor you are allowed in.
This is a large expanse of wild forest, and managers debate the value of intervention in nature's processes. The big concerns are wind, floods and fires. Wind storms blew down thousands of huge trees in 1931, and again in 1983. Floods in 1964 and 1996 caused massive damage and required round-the-clock repairs. There have been no large fires in the Bull Run since it became a regional water source. Experts estimate the watershed averages a big fire every 350 years. Most of today's big Doug firs sprouted after a huge hot fire in 1493. Normally the moist watershed doesn't burn but given the right conditions- drought, lightning, and high winds- anything could happen.
Since 1972 the watershed has been jointly managed by the Forest Service and the Portland City Water Bureau. This joint-custody arrangement isn't without tensions. The Forest Service has difficulty retreating from a deeply ingrained legacy of timber cutting and still maintains that the watershed would be better managed with some logging. City officials are more closely tied to the shifting winds of local politics.
Old highway railings provide clues to the past.
Somewhere in between lies the debate over proper management of wild lands that provide our most precious resource. Today, 25 percent of Oregonians get their water from the Bull Run Watershed and 40 percent of Oregonians get their water from Mt. Hood National Forest. A century ago, city officials with tremendous foresight established a lasting and pure water source. How we manage water quality and quantity will determine our survival in this century.
For a long day hike, take the P.C.T. for four miles to the Lost Lake trail junction called Huckleberry Trail #617. Down a steep trail for just shy of two miles you find yourself on the road next to the lake.