Steam Donkey Trail: Roadside History In Oregon’s Logging Country

I’m a sucker for roadside attractions. Scenic viewpoints, information kiosks, interpretive trails — I love ’em! "World’s largest Sitka spruce!" "See the barbed-wire buffalo sculpture!" "Dinosaur bones, next left!" These roadside promises and more have caused a detour in my route and a delay in my arrival at my eventual destination. And that’s the way I like it: I’m a stop-and-smell-the-roses kinda gal when I travel.

Verdant trail beckons.

Between Portland And The Coast
It’s less than 80 miles from Oregon’s largest city to the Pacific Ocean along Highway 26, and normally this short drive and the siren song of the waves would make it a non-stop trip. But on a recent, sparkling blue-sky morning, I couldn’t resist a diversion en route.

Driving through the Clatsop State Forest, with the dew glistening off the conifer canopy overhead, and the road a darkened tunnel in the slanting morning light, I stopped at the Sunset Rest Area between mileposts 28 and 29. This particular rest area is just east of the summit of this low pass through the Coastal Range, about 1,600 feet above sea level. Exiting the rest room, I saw an interpretive sign.

What’s A "Steam Donkey"?
The site upon which the current rest area and trails are located was, a century ago, a bustling steam logging operation. "Steam donkeys" were steam-powered hoists utilized in logging, mining, and other heavy industry in the steam engine heyday. The logging operation at this site was in full swing in the early 1920s.

Interpretive signs tell the story along the way.

Steam donkeys got their name from the draft animals they replaced. Invented in the redwood forests of Northern California in the late 1800s, steam donkeys were the power supply used to move logs along "skids," or sleds, typically made of other logs.

Two Trails In One
Today’s hiker and amateur historian can enjoy a history lesson and a short walk along a gentle hillside. The Steam Donkey Trail is actually two trails in a figure-8 pattern. Take the first small loop alone for a quick jaunt of just over a quarter mile, or add the back loop for a hike of just over three-quarters of a mile. Either way, begin adjacent to the Steam Donkey Trail interpretive sign, where you’ll cross a bridge over South Fork Rock Creek.

The front segment of the trail, the 0.3-mile Springboard Loop, still contains traces of the old steam donkey operation, as well as interpretive signs. Stay right after crossing the bridge. A verdant trail, the forest restored with second- and third-growth today, beckons you into this counterclockwise loop.

The Springboard Loop is named for the planks loggers used to insert into notches on tree trunks. In order to cut into the giant trees at an advantageous height above the widest flare of the trunk, they would use their axes or saws to carve out a notch into which they could insert a plank, or a "springboard." They would climb up and stand on these springboards, providing a level perch above the dense undergrowth. From this perch, the lumberjacks plied their crosscut saws to fell the giant old-growth timber.

Author on bridge to Springboard Loop.

Halfway through Springboard Loop, it intersects with the 0.5-mile Dooley Spur Loop. Those wishing to walk the entire trail will want to turn right and follow this upper loop, which utilizes the old railroad grade where logs started on their trip to the mill at Veronia back in the 1920s. Dooley Spur crosses a small stream, drops down near Rock Creek, then climbs a gentle series of steps before leveling off beneath a planted forest canopy. Re-cross the stream and stay right to return to the rest of Springboard Loop.

Both trails are easy walking, and the Springboard Loop portion is wheelchair-accessible.

You’ve just invested a mere half an hour in stretching your legs, breathing the forest air, and learning a little bit about the history of logging in Oregon. And you’re less than an hour from the beach (or Portland, if you’re headed east). In this hiker’s opinion, that’s time well spent.

Sally O’Neal lives, hikes, and writes in southeastern Washington State. Her books include "Hot Showers, Soft Beds, and Dayhikes in the Central Cascades." She writes weekly for sportsmansguide.com.

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