Conservation and hiking groups are starting to worry about the “post-fire” effect on the Washington State side of the Columbia River Gorge.
Sharon Ross is on the board of the Cape Horn Conservancy, a nonprofit that cares for the Cape Horn trail and surrounding lands in the Washougal-Stevenson gorge corridor.
“We are loving the trails to death, especially the popular ones,” Ross said.
About 40 Oregon gorge trails damaged by the human-caused Eagle Creek wildfire, which charred nearly 50,000 acres between Corbett and Hood River, Oregon, in the fall of 2017, remain closed this summer. Hikers have adapted, however, coming across the Columbia River to take in the stunning views, wildflowers and waterfalls on Washington’s side of the gorge.
Washington officials confirm the increase in hikers.
Virginia Painter, a spokesperson for Washington State Parks, said park employees at Beacon Rock State Park, located 19 miles east of Washougal, estimate a 40-percent increase in hikers from May 2017 to May 2018.
“That’s a pretty astounding number,” Painter said, adding many of the hikers have been flocking to the park’s Hamilton Mountain trail.
Crowding on Cape Horn Trail
The Cape Horn Trail, situated in between Beacon Rock State Park and Washougal, has become one of the more popular hiking trails on the Washington side of the gorge. Not too shocking, considering the trail’s stunning views and close proximity to Portland.
Jill Turner, vice-president of the Cape Horn Conservancy, said the increase in hikers on the Washington State side of the gorge isn’t totally due to last year’s wildfires.
“Every year, the number of people on the (Cape Horn) trail goes up, so it’s more than just people coming over here because of the Eagle Creek fire,” Turner said.
To avoid crowds, Turner recommends getting to trailheads early in the morning and trying to avoid weekend days. The Cape Horn trailhead, at the intersection of state Highway 14 and Salmon Falls Road, also acts as a “park and ride” for Skamania County commuters, so Turner urges caution for hikers who do come out during the week.
“Sometimes, the larger crowds during the week might create some tension between commuters and hikers,” she said.
In recent months, Turner and Ross, along with other members of the Cape Horn Conservancy, have been repairing damaged and overused portions of the trail with the help of volunteers. They said increased foot traffic is starting to widen trails and cause erosion.
A bright side to the wildfires
At the Nancy Russell Overlook in the western Washington gorge, Turner and Ross pointed out the overlook’s perfect view of the fire-blacked forest land surrounding the historic Multnomah Falls Lodge, on the Oregon side of the gorge. Named after the late Nancy Russell, who managed to stop a planned 16-lot development near the site in 1983, leading to the creation of the Columbia River Gorge’s “National Scenic Area” designation, the overlook is surrounded by brilliant wildflowers, including delphiniums and deep purple lupines in full bloom.
“There are waterfalls, views, wildflowers — what is not to like about this trail?,” Ross, who recently joined the board of the Cape Horn Conservancy after years of volunteering on work parties, said. “As a retired person, I was looking for ways to give back and I wanted to do it in a way that speaks to what I love.”
Ross also volunteers as a trail ambassador for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the entire Gorge area. On weekends, she goes to various trailheads on the Washington side of the gorge to answer hikers’ questions.
Ross said the recent, constant, stream of hikers is like nothing she has experienced during her volunteer work in the gorge.
Still, she said there is a bright side.
“One of the good things that came out of the Eagle Creek fires is public involvement,” Ross said. “A lot more people are volunteering to help with the trails.” Ross added that Cape Horn Conservancy members report it is becoming difficult to get onto a volunteer work party because they now fill up so quickly.
Hikers seek out new trails
Conservation experts believe one of the keys to protecting the most popular trails like Cape Horn, Hamilton Mountain and Dog Mountain is to reduce foot traffic by convincing hikers to seek out less popular trails. A good example is a little known trail just one ridge west of Hamilton Mountain named Hardy Ridge. Ross and Turner have both led hiking groups on the Hardy Ridge trail within the past few weeks.
“The view is equally (as) beautiful as the popular Hamilton Mountain trail,” Ross said of Hardy Ridge. “It is gorgeous and teaming with wildflowers. The only difference? Fewer people.”
Want to help protect the trails on the Washington side of the gorge? There are several volunteer opportunities coming up. To find out more, or sign up for work parties, visit capehornconservancy.org or gorgefriends.org.