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Adventurers flock to the Washington side of the Gorge

Claire Francis of Beaverton, Ore., left, prepares with her family to hike the Cape Horn Trail from the packed Salmon Falls Road Park & Ride lot. Since the Eagle Creek fire, Francis said, she’s been crossing the river to hike the Washington side of the Gorge more. (Natalie Behring / Columbian)
Claire Francis of Beaverton, Ore., left, prepares with her family to hike the Cape Horn Trail from the packed Salmon Falls Road Park & Ride lot. Since the Eagle Creek fire, Francis said, she’s been crossing the river to hike the Washington side of the Gorge more. (Natalie Behring / Columbian)
By Scott Hewitt Columbian

Earlier this year, officials at Washington State Parks started bracing themselves for mobs of eager outdoor adventurers who couldn’t get their thrills on the south side of the Columbia River Gorge.

Thanks to last year’s Eagle Creek Fire – started by a Vancouver teen who tossed a firework down into a tinder-dry gulch – much of the scenic area on the Oregon side, a major tourist draw, has been closed for restoration and repair.

Did that send all those visitors spilling over bridges to the north side? And jamming parking lots, and wearing down trails, parks and park rangers?

Not too badly, as it turns out. Frankly, said Meryl Lipman of Washington State Parks, the biggest impact has been to Port-a-Johns. “The toilet issues were the biggest issues,” she said. “They did have a little bit of a challenge with bathroom maintenance.”

Visits by folks fleeing the Oregon side of the Gorge for the Washington side were definitely way up, numerous sources said. Summer tourism is far from over and final tallies weren’t always available when The Columbian asked, but the Skamania County Chamber of Commerce reported many more people walking in and asking for guidance at both its downtown Stevenson office and its summer-weekends Bridge of the Gods “outpost” office.

“Between our two visitor centers . we served 3,353 people during the months of June and July. That is a 40 percent increase over 2017,” said executive director Casey Roeder.

“That’s showing you how many more people are crossing the river and exploring places they never have before,” said Renee Tkach, a project manager with Friends of the Columbia Gorge. “They’re coming to the Washington side and going, ‘Whoa, what do I do?’”

Washington waterfalls

Many go to Beacon Rock State Park, which provides a unique and scenic switchback hike up the rock itself; also, the rugged Hamilton Mountain hike that starts nearby leads past the cool whooshing of Rodney Falls, Hardy Falls and the Pool of the Winds. That’s “the closest you can get on the Washington side to the waterfall experience” provided by Multnomah Falls and the much-sought “waterfall alley” on the Oregon side, Tkach said. “That’s what a lot of people are looking for, that waterfall experience,” she said.

So it’s not surprising that visitors to Beacon Rock State Park rose in early spring, then spiked sharply in May (37 percent increase) and June (30 percent increase) over the same period last year; then, as some trails started to reopen on the Oregon side in July and August, the spike shrank to “a more manageable 20 to 25 percent,” Lipman said.

“It’s been full,” agreed Beacon Rock park manager Heath Yates. “The parking lot is full earlier in the morning and for longer in the day. People were parking along the highway, but that’s reduced now.”

Yeats said he had no problems to report. “There’s a little more trash, but we haven’t seen any significant impact,” he said.

“There’s always microtrash, like when you tear off the corner of your energy bar and it blows away,” Lipman said, but there’s been no rise in blatant littering. “The people who hike those trails are generally good stewards of the land. They care,” she said.

They may care, but some arrive slightly clueless. “The biggest wake-up call for us is people coming here who have no idea there was a fire,” said Tkach. “People coming from Seattle or California on vacation, people from the West Coast where you’d think they would have known.”

It relieved some pressure on the Washington side when Oregon reopened some of those popular waterfall sites, Lipman said, like Latourelle Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and Starvation Creek Falls, as well as some of its more rugged and challenging trails, like Herman Creek and Indian Point. Lipman calls those “Hamilton Mountain equivalent” trails but noted that, generally speaking, the Washington side is gentler and more rolling than the rugged, rocky, forested Oregon side – the real mecca for the toughest adventurers.

Chaos to control

“We had chaos in the parking lot in 2017” at Dog Mountain, Tkach said. That’s a supreme wildflower-peeping trail on the Washington side, operated by the Forest Service, and it became notorious for overcrowding and dangerous spillover parking on the highway last year. “There were a lot of safety and congestion issues, and parking in illegal areas,” she said.

That led to a new partnership among local agencies – including the Washington State Patrol, Skamania County and the Forest Service – and new controls for the first half of summer 2018: a $5 fee for the parking lot, mandatory hiking permits on weekends, and a weekend shuttle to carry hikers back and forth between the trailhead and the Skamania County Fairgrounds.

“We had huge success at Dog Mountain” with the new system, Tkach said. The hiker permits were sold out every weekend, she said, and a total of 2,500 hikers rode the shuttle. “We eliminated all safety issues at the trailhead,” she said.

And what about safety issues on the trail itself? “Miraculously, our numbers are actually down in terms of search-and-rescue on the Washington side,” Tkach said.

Meanwhile, she added, the U.S. Forest Service will conduct a congestion-and-safety study of state Highway 14 in the Gorge, starting this fall. It’ll focus on current and future recreation sites including Dog Mountain, Cape Horn and others – with an eye toward what Tkach has called Friends of the Gorge’s “holy grail”: a practical transit-to-trail system that provides hikers carless access to trailheads throughout the Gorge Scenic Area.

Out in front

Maybe that search-and-rescue safety miracle is actually due to the Trailhead Ambassador program, launched last year by a number of regional Gorge partners (but not Washington State Parks). The program wasn’t started because of the Eagle Creek Fire, but its volunteer Trailhead Ambassadors sure have come in handy in the aftermath, according to coordinator Megan Josie.

“In terms of getting out in front of a wave of potential impacts and problems, it’s been really successful,” Tkach agreed.

Most of those volunteers have been stationed at Oregon-side trailheads – and redirecting many of them to the Washington side. “Here’s were you can go instead,” is a frequent phrase as they recommend substitute spots like Dog Mountain and Beacon Rock, Tkach said.

Ambassadors were also stationed at Dog Mountain and Cape Horn on weekends earlier this summer; they’re still on site at Cape Horn on weekends now. Next year, Josie said, the ambassador program wants to work with Washington State Parks and stake out more of this side too – especially busy Beacon Rock, she said.

It’s hard to quantify the real impact of Trailhead Ambassadors beyond their sheer number of visitor contacts (15,500 by July 31), Josie said. That’s because there’s no way of tallying up the problems that never happened, thanks to their input. Trailhead Ambassadors are there to provide information and friendly cautions about trails: hiking conditions, possible hazards, detours and closures, recommendations about safety for children and dogs. (Leashes aren’t mandatory, Tkach said, but they’re strongly recommended. Two dogs died on the Cape Horn trail in 2017, she said.)

While trailhead ambassadors may also give guidance about parking, it’s not their job to enforce parking lot rules, Josie said. But if someone parks and departs on a hike late in the day, she said, an ambassador might jot down the license plate number – just in case. The ambassadors are “able to be an extra set of eyes and ears,” she said.

Flowers and heat

Out near the east end of the Gorge scenic area, the triple-site Columbia Hills State Park (featuring the “She Who Watches” petroglyph at Horsethief Lake, riverside rock climbing at Horsethief Butte and great spring wildflowers and bird-watching at Crawford Oaks) proved more popular than ever with newcomers, earlier this summer. The ranger there “said he saw a lot more Oregon license plates than last year,” Lipman said. “He met a lot more first-timers from the Portland and Vancouver area who wouldn’t have travelled that far east otherwise.”

But the spike in new visitors at Columbia Hills sank again by midsummer. “Once the wildflowers start to die off, that coincides with the heat rising. It’s 110 degrees out there today, and there’s no shade,” Lipman said on a recent Thursday. “So the visitors are down.”

The Stonehenge monument near Maryhill State Park – just outside the easternmost border of the Gorge Scenic Area, but still plenty scenic – has also experienced some parking, trash collection and bathroom-maintenance issues, Lipman added, but that’s not because of the Eagle Creek Fire – it’s because the observatory in Goldendale is closed for renovations this year, and sky-viewing parties have been moved to Stonehenge this summer. That’s drawn a lot of starry-eyed visitors, Lipman said.

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