We were in the Portland area and waiting for some friends to become available for a visit. It was about to be the Labor Day Holiday and they had house guests already so we didn’t want to impose. We let them know we would be happy to hang out in the Mt. Hood National Forest about an hour from them until they were ready for us and the whirlwind our arrival would produce which is Willow and their five dogs making their noisy, happy, rough & tumble reacquaintance.
We headed out on Highway 224 into Estacada and stopped in at the Ranger Station to get their input on some cool places to camp in the forest. At first they thought we were inquiring about reserving a place in a developed campground. Since it was soon to be a holiday weekend we expected there to be a dearth of campground openings and we were correct. Not that we cared though because dispersed camping holds far more allure to us than the regimented, densely packed humanity that is all too common in state or National Park campgrounds. When we clarified our desires they handed us some maps, pointed out a couple of promising areas and wished us well. We continued out on Hwy 224 past some turnoffs to places we have stayed in the past before we eventually saw the sign for the Indian Henry Campground and decided to turn off and check the area out.
The campground sits on Forest Service Road 4620, also known as Sandstone Road, next to the Clackamas River and offers the sublime sights and sounds resultant from such a perch. Sadly it also has more than its share of road noise coming from Hwy 224 which parallels the river on its other side.
The campground has lately been dealing with an infestation of laminated root rot and many of the campground’s spots were closed due to dangerous conditions such as falling tree limbs or complete tree falls. Other spots were closed because of Forest Service crews cleaning up after those falling trees and branches so it was essentially and inexplicably (for such a major camping holiday weekend) empty of campers but busy with noisy workers. That sealed the deal and so we decided to head farther on up FS 4620 and see what opportunities we could find.
About three miles past the campground we came to a sharp fork in the paved road and took the hard right which turned immediately into a maintained dirt road and led steeply up into the forest. Oddly the map makes mention of a Big Creek but shows the nearby road as Bug Creek Rd so we’re not sure if that is a typo or just a coincidence. We quickly came to a possible dispersed camping spot but there was a small house-sized slash pile ready for whatever the Forest Service or the logging company that left it there does with such things. Being in the middle of a National Forest we highly doubt they would toss a match and step back but man oh man…the latent pyromaniac in me would love to see that spectacle. Frankly it looked like the world’s biggest rodent nest though and, while I am sure that Willow would have loved to spend hours at a time sniffing around it and trying to match the death toll from her Death Valley Slaughterama, I didn’t want to camp next to it and tempt a rat-poop-infested fate.
About a 1/4 of a mile further up the road past the slash pile we found our place. The last possible existing campsite before the end of the road. This is true dispersed camping. No picnic table, water or garbage service but a nice rock fire ring was available. Oh and, as all too common, zero AT&T signal. Our spot was enclosed on all sides by a dense and lush wall of trees which filtered the sounds of the forest trickling in between bouts of Pacific Northwest drizzle.
Just a little past this site, up the road where you can see the light coming through the trees was the true dead-end of the road. It had been purposefully cut by a backhoe so that, without bridging ladders, no motor vehicle could pass. A trench 10 feet across and 8 feet deep across the entire width of the road with the excavated dirt formed into a berm parallel to the trench on its downhill side. I guess “they” really don’t want motor vehicles past that spot. On the uphill side of the trench the remains of the dirt road were still there but were slowly reverting back to nature.
With such a dense forest around our spot sunlight was minimal and so our solar panels were essentially useless. After the first day of not being able to keep our house battery topped off we made it a point to take a daily drive up to the dead-end which was all of 100 yards past our site and set up our panels during the short window of daylight hours when that area had direct sunlight. The extra-added bonus was that I was able to catch some Vitamin D and Willow was able to take glorious dirt baths and roll in the nice hot sun to her little heart’s content.
Once the sun had moved past our daytime sunny spot we closed up the solar panels and drove those 100 yards back to our actual campsite.
During the week we had the place completely to ourselves with only one interruption as someone drove up and immediately turned around again when they saw that there were no more available campsites. The weekend though was another matter entirely as probably a half-dozen carloads of people came up each day looking for places to shoot and were somewhat annoyed when they saw us camped (in a legal campsite mind you) less than the standard rule of 150 yards away from the spot they wanted to go shooting at. A few were kind enough to ask first and a few needed a friendly reminder and an offer of a copy of the shooting regulations for the forest. After our brief time and tense interaction at Anerson Flat we now always have the handout on shooting regulations for whatever National Forest or other public lands we are trying to enjoy.
Even though we were successful in holding off those who wanted to shoot that close to our campsite we could do nothing about all the other gleeful noisemakers that flooded into the Forest on that holiday weekend. Sadly, someone decided to set up camp down the hill at that slash pile we decided against and spent an hour, at least two times a day, spending lots of money sending lead projectiles downrange. They also seemingly had a .50 cal or something BIG and poor little Miss Willow was shaking like a leaf. We took those opportunities to walk past that road-ending trench and took long hikes back up into the hills and as far away from the noise as we possibly could. Once we got around the second corner the sound of the breeze through the trees kept the booms at bay. The remaining people who showed up were non-shooters and wanted to explore up that same old Forest Road that was now returning to a natural state.
We drove back down the mountain that Tuesday, past Indian Henry Campground itself and back onto Hwy 224 heading towards Estacada until our phone got a signal and was flooded with the backlog of emails and texts we had been unable to receive for the past week. Among that deluge was the email from our friends in Portland letting us know that they would be available that coming weekend. We had enough supplies and had no reason to go into town to refill our larder so we just turned around and headed back up to our spot for the next few days.
Now that the holiday weekend was over and the crowds had departed the forest was calming down and beginning to recover and return to its normal vibration. It’s a guess but we’re assuming that the reason we saw almost no native fauna about during that long weekend was because of the increased holiday traffic and gun play. Those next few post-holiday days were a decided change from before. On our day hikes we could hear a variety of birds and saw several deer. At night there was obviously a fox or three out and on the prowl while yipping and screaming like busy foxes normally do.
Even though Mt. Hood National Forest encompasses well over 1,000,000 acres of land it is also one of the most-visited National Forests in the United States with over four million people coming to enjoy its offerings annually. Throughout the tiny portion of the National Forest just directly above Indian Henry we saw dozens of other dirt roads in various states of repair leading off into the woods. Now that we know the general lay of the land the next time we are in the area we will make an effort to explore another chunk of it, see if we can’t find a suitable spot to set up camp and go on another Adventure With Dog.