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Old-Growth Alaska Cedars in Echo Basin

Fifteen thousand years ago, the Cascade Range was covered with a massive ice cap, up to a half-mile thick and extending 170 miles from Mt. Hood south to Mt. McLoughlin. As the climate warmed, a disjunct population of Alaska yellow cedars was left behind in a unique glacial bowl, known as Echo Basin, where cold air collects and pools. Just an hour’s drive from Bend, this basin and its old-growth cedars can be explored on a 2.5-mile loop hike, along with alpine meadows and glorious wildflower displays in late spring and summer.

Getting to Know Alaska Cedars
The
Range map of Alaska cedars
natural range of Alaska yellow cedars (Cupressus nootkatensis) is along the Pacific Coast from Prince William Sound in Alaska to northern California (see map at right). These graceful, relatively slow growing trees with shaggy bark may be the oldest living trees in the Pacific Northwest, with some known to have survived over 1,800 years. In the Echo Basin, one finds several individuals over 6 feet in diameter and likely over 600 years old, including what is believed to be the largest known Alaska cedar in Oregon.

What’s so unique about the Echo Basin that allows it to support a tree species whose prime habitat is 800 miles north in the temperate rain forests of southeast Alaska and British Columbia? As the basin is tightly enclosed by steep cliffs carved by Ice Age glaciers, and because its east-facing exposure protects it from afternoon sun, cold air can collect and pool in this bowl-shaped basin, creating a cool, moist micro-climate that is conducive to Alaska cedars’ survival.

Today the greatest threat to this species, in Alaska and British Columbia as well as the Echo Basin, is the global warming of the climate.
Needles and cone of Alaska cedar
Extensive research into large scale die-offs of Alaska cedars over the past century has concluded that these trees depend upon heavy snowpacks to insulate their shallow roots from cold winter temperatures. The impacts of climate change have resulted in thinner, less-persistent snowpacks, causing much greater susceptibility to freeze damage. Already in southeast Alaska and British Columbia, up to 70% of the standing yellow cedar population today is dead, in forests covering hundreds of square miles. What will the future hold for these grand trees in the Echo Basin?

Hiking the Echo Basin Trail
To reach the Echo Basin, only an hour’s drive from Bend, take Hwy 20 through Sisters, past Black Butte Ranch, to Santiam Pass. Nine miles beyond the pass, at the Hwy 126 junction, keep going west on Hwy 20 for 4.9 miles more to the signed turnoff for the Echo Basin Trail on the right (Forest Road 55). Follow this dirt road for 1.9 miles, as it switchbacks up into the Echo Creek watershed, to the trailhead information board on the right. There are a few deep ruts just before the trailhead, but these can be negotiated with care by most passenger cars. (See the Travel Map download below, for both driving and hiking maps).

View of grove of Alaska Cedars
From the parking area, the trail starts west up the south bank of Echo Creek, and within 100 yards meets an old logging road that it follows up into the basin, through a plantation of silver firs. Look for old logging cables underfoot and for blue grouse along the trail here. At 0.8 miles, the trail forks at a wood footbridge across Echo Creek. This is the start of the loop trail around the upper basin, which is best enjoyed counter-clockwise, to the right over the footbridge. Within 100 yards, one comes to the first grove of big Alaska cedars, which is said to include the largest Alaska cedar tree in Oregon.

Past this grove, the trail climbs free of the forest and heads to the upper basin, through alder thickets and past dense stands of red cedar. The route then switchbacks steeply up the hillside, where one finds isolated Alaska cedars, some with double trunks that are 6’-8’ thick. At 1.2 miles, the trail levels out and begins a long traverse across the head of Echo Basin, first going through dry open alpine meadows, with showy wildflowers. Within 200 yards, the trail enters wet meadows with springs and seeps, which are crossed in places on wood boardwalks.
View of alpine meadows in Echo Basin
Look for rare white bog orchids, purple monkshood and pink elephant head flowers in season here.

After crossing the meadows of the upper basin, at 1.5 miles the trail begins a descent along the south side of Echo Creek, through more giant Alaska cedars, with quite a few deadfall trees across the trail. In August, look for a profusion of yellow-orange salmonberries here, a tasty trailside snack. At 1.8 miles, one arrives back at the footbridge, having completed the loop. The route is then back down the old logging road to the trailhead, the way you came.

NOTE: The loop trail around the basin is overgrown in parts, so long pants and shirt sleeves are essential for protection. Also, even in late summer, the upper meadows run with water and to avoid wet muddy boots, having a pair of light, fast-drying shoes along can be a plus.

Download (PDF, 668 KB): Photos of Echo Basin Hike
Download (PDF, 743 KB): Travel Map for Echo Basin Hike

DISCLAIMER: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this information, but the authors do not guarantee that it is either current or correct. The reader assumes full responsibility for any use of this information, and is encouraged to exercise all due caution while recreating.

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