Trail of the Month: Nov. 2022
“The Crown Z is the start, or the end, of a three-trail system that will take you from the Columbia River to the coast.”
—Casey Garrett, a Columbia County commissioner
Winding 25 miles through the northwest corner of Oregon, the Crown Zellerbach Trail (affectionately nicknamed the Crown Z Trail) serves as a rolling journey into history, introducing visitors to the home of the region’s First Peoples, the legacy of the area’s railroad and timber industries and intriguing geological events.
Although once neglected, continued investment by Columbia County and its close-knit communities have turned the former railroad corridor into an outdoor asset for locals and a draw for residents of Portland just over 20 miles away.
“It’s a 30-year project in the making, but there’s been a steady vision to keep it moving along,” said Casey Garrett, a Columbia County commissioner.
Garrett grew up in this area, and he and his friends rode their motorbikes on the logging roads, which are now part of the trail. “I never would have guessed it would turn into this recreational [feature],” he said.
After years of work by dedicated volunteers and public servants, the trail opened in 2014. Its eastern end travels through the town of Scappoose, then winds among deciduous trees before heading into conifer forests as the elevation increases. It reaches its highest point at a little over 1,200 feet at Nehalem Divide, before ending, at around 500 feet, in Vernonia. Mountain bikes work especially well for the trail, which is largely packed gravel, and—with a trailhead every 3–4 miles, trail users can hop on for a short hike or ride or make an entire day of it.
“The lower section is closer to the [Columbia] river, and there are a lot of kids riding their bikes, particularly because it’s near town,” said Matt D’Agrosa, an environmental scientist and co-creator of WildColumbia.org, as well as a local who loves the trail.
A Path Through History
Millions of years ago, when there was abundant volcanic activity in the region, magma flows traveled along the Columbia Basin all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The exposed basalt flow is evident along the trail, as well as the markings of younger (albeit 100,000 to 14,000 years ago) glacial flooding events. Although the trail is some 50 miles inland from the coast, visitors can even find seashells in some of the sedimentary deposits along the route.
“There’s a lot of cool geology along the trail,” explained D’Agrosa. “Just being able to look for the geological formations adds something [to the experience].”
From these ancient cataclysmic events grew lush forests and green landscapes where First Peoples thrived for eons, and the trail’s interpretive signs share many of their stories.
“This was the most densely populated area in the U.S. [for Indigenous Peoples],” said Cindy Ede, part of the Friends of the Crown Z Trail. “It literally was a metropolis around Scappoose.” The name of the town comes from Skáppus, the village of a Chinookan tribe, and this entire region was home to the Chinook and Clatskanie people.
Throughout her life in this region, Ede has championed the history of the First Peoples and has worked to protect artifacts and important sites. Near Scappoose, the Meier Site preserves the remains of a 55-by-90-foot Chinookan plankhouse that housed 200 people, and archaeological evidence is found throughout the trail and the region.
In addition to the fish available in the nearby Columbia River, Ede also noted that Bonnie Falls, which is a short jaunt off the trail, is a prime example of where salmon were frequently caught during their spawning period as they worked their way up the falls. “That was a fish encampment right near the trail,” she said.
As a result of abundant natural resources, these advanced, permanent villages thrived for eons, and according to documented evidence, part of the Crown Zellerbach Trail leading to Sauvie Island most likely follows the footsteps of these Indigenous People.
In January 1700, a major earthquake (estimated to be a magnitude of 8.7–9.2) hit the Pacific Northwest and unleashed a tsunami that devastated the coastal people, particularly the Chinook. A few years later, Spanish explorations of the region began. By 1828, settlers had moved into the resource-rich area, and in the mid-1800s, the federal government began a removal of the area’s remaining Indigenous People.
In 1906, Simcoe Chapman and his son incorporated the Portland and Southwestern Railroad, expanding the line as needed for logging operations here. Even though the railroad changed hands several times over many decades, the line was in use until 1943. The following year, the Crown Zellerbach Corporation purchased it and removed the tracks to create a road for logging trucks.
Today, 34 kiosks along the trail explain the area’s geology and wildlife, as well as provide historical information created by the Columbia County Museum Association with QR codes (where there is cell service) for additional content.
While there was initial pushback with concerns that a popular trail would negatively impact the area, Garrett said locals now realize its benefits, especially since many of the perceived problems never materialized. “They take a certain pride in the area,” he noted, particularly when it comes to their logging heritage. “Even the names of the trailheads have history behind them,” he added.
In addition to the kiosks, many of the trailheads also include restrooms, picnic tables and bike repair stations. All of this work, as well as other improvements for the trail, are a concerted effort by a number of public and private partners.
“Community support has been instrumental in our work,” said Dale Latham, member of the Crown Zellerbach Trail Citizen Advisory Committee. “In addition to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, Travel Oregon and the Columbia Economic Team have been key funders.”
Garrett noted that they have also consistently worked with timber companies, including Weyerhaeuser and Holce Logging Company (which granted an easement into Vernonia), as well as the Bureau of Land Management, for rights-of-way throughout the county.
“The Crown Z is the start, or the end, of a three-trail system that will take you from the Columbia River to the coast,” enthused Garrett.
At its westernmost trailhead, wayfinding signage guides users into Vernonia over the 2 miles of shared road and directs them to the nearby 21-mile Banks-Vernonia State Trail. This ultimately connects to the developing 86-mile Salmonberry Trail, which begins northwest of Portland and will stretch all the way to the Pacific Ocean, ending at Tillamook.
While the backbone of the Crown Zellerbach Trail is well established, Garrett said, “There is a lot more to do.”