Swimming hole enthusiasts rejoiced over the weekend, as they returned to Naked Falls, along the Washougal River in Skamania County.
Steven Epling, of Vancouver, recently purchased the falls and some of the surrounding area, located two miles north of Dougan Falls, from Weyerhaeuser Company. He bought 131 acres for $275,000.
The Naked Falls area has been closed to the public since June 2016.
Epling, 37, a credit union manager, grew up in the town of Skamania, about a mile or two from Beacon Rock, and has been visiting the falls since he was a young teen.
Epling, approached Weyerhaeuser last summer, to inquire about leasing Naked Falls and the land around it, or purchasing a permit to be on the land.
“It wasn’t available,” Epling said. “They told me I could not get a lease or permit. I suspected if they are that concerned, they might want to offload it. I went to them, to propose a sale. I never conceived it would be possible. I would not have thought it was an option.”
The waterway earned its creative name after becoming a popular area for nude sunbathers.
“The flat riverbed was exposed during the summer,” Epling said, explaining how visitors are able to find stable, sunbathing-friendly ground at the falls.
Unlike its name suggests, however, nudity is not allowed.
“It’s just a clever name,” explained Skamania County Undersheriff Pat Bond.
For Epling, the falls were more than just a clever name, though. In fact, many of Epling’s best memories included Naked Falls. When he was in his 20s, Epling and several friends used sticks and grass to fashion rudimentary boats and race them down the canals of the falls.
“There were little channels in the bedrock,” he said. “We could race those tiny, little boats, all day.”
And when his now 6-year-old son was just a toddler, Epling enjoyed taking father-son trips to the falls.
Now, Epling hopes he can help others find joy at Naked Falls.
His goals for the area include restoring it for public use, which would include setting up tent camping spaces, and adding restrooms and showers.
Epling is seeking a conditional-use permit from Skamania County, to make the Naked Falls area an official campground.
“I would need a full-time camp host to make it feasible,” he said.
Epling was at the falls in the mornings and early afternoons of Saturday, July 1, through Tuesday, July 4, to accept $10 cash per vehicle, for parking passes.
“There was pretty light traffic actually,” he said. “We still had extra spaces.”
Access is currently limited from 10 a.m. to sunset on weekends.
There are dozens of “no trespassing” signs on the way to Naked Falls, but people who purchase parking passes from Epling do not need to worry about them as long as they park in the nearly 100 designated parking spaces.
Epling anticipates having a website up in about two weeks, so people will be able to purchase parking passes online.
There is no cost to enter the falls area without a vehicle.
For more information about Naked Falls, visit www.facebook.com/washougalriver.
Concerns from law enforcement officials
Skamania County Sheriff Dave Brown said he has been working with Epling as he pursues the campground idea, as well as providing public access in and around Naked Falls.
“Our concerns center around the potential for an increase in water related incidents, alcohol and issues that come with that, as well as parking and emergency vehicle access,” Brown said.
There have been previous accidents at Naked Falls. In June 2015, a 20-year-old man was injured after jumping from a tree limb approximately 40 to 50 feet into the water at Naked Falls. He struck a rock outcropping and suffered back and arm injuries. He was rescued from the river and pulled up the steep bank with the assistance of a rope system, then driven by ambulance to a landing zone where Life Flight transported him to PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver.
The next day, at the same location, a 31-year-old man injured his leg after jumping into the water from a 10-foot ledge, then striking a submerged rock. Bystanders assisted the man to the water’s edge, and remained with him until rescue operations could be performed. The victim was floated over the swift moving water to a steep embankment, and maneuvered up to the roadway using a rope system, then taken by ambulance to the hospital.
The Skamania County Sheriff’s Office will enforce the Dougan Falls Recreation Safety Corridor ordinance in the county code. The ordinance prohibits use and/or possession of alcoholic beverages, discharge of firearms and use of fireworks.
It also prohibits camping, except within the designated Washington Department of Natural Resources campground, and campfires, except in DNR-approved firepits within the DNR campground.
The boundaries of the Dougan Falls Recreation Safety Corridor include 1,000 feet on either side from the centerline of the Washougal River beginning at Milepost 15.45 on Washougal River Road, continuing north to Milepost 15.75 (Washougal River fish hatchery) and beginning again at the southern end of the Dougan Falls bridge and extending north by northeast to the area known as the “Three Corner Rock” trailhead.
Brown said he supports Epling’s idea for installing a private campground at Naked Falls.
“I am working with our planning department to amend the Dougan Falls ordinance, to exempt certain prohibited activities as it relates to Mr. Epling’s campground venture,” Brown said.
As for Epling, despite jumping through hoops to see the campground become a reality, he says owning Naked Falls is a dream come true.
“Since I was younger, I wanted to accumulate real estate,” Epling said. “I was planning to sell properties and buy apartment buildings. This is probably less profitable, but it’s what I care about.”
After graduating from Stevenson High School in 1998, Epling earned an associate degree at Clark College and a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Washington State University Vancouver. At one point, he owned three rental houses, plus the home he lives in.
Epling sold his rental homes and used that capital to help him purchase the Naked Falls acreage.
“I was going to liquidate the houses and buy a small apartment complex,” Epling said. “I decided I’d rather do this. This is like my dream. I could not pass it up. I had to try to make it happen.”