In the year following the 2017 Eagle Creek wildfire, which closed a number of popular hiking trails on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, at least one Washington Gorge hiking area reported a record number of visitors.
Washington State officials documented 292,662 visitors to Beacon Rock State Park, about 18 miles east of Washougal, in 2018. That was, by far, the all-time record for visitors to the park, said Meryl Delena Lassen, of the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.
“It (Beacon Rock attendance numbers) really spiked in 2018 after the fires, especially while the Oregon trails were closed,” Lassen said.
With several Oregon-side trails still closed, hikers seem to still be flocking to the Washington side of the Gorge.
Last weekend, on Sunday, June 30, the Beacon Rock trail was packed with visitors.
Marc Boucher-Corbert, of Southeast Portland, took in the view from the top of the trail with his family and friends, several of whom were visiting from Norway and Japan.
“It’s one of our favorite hikes with friends. Whenever someone comes from out of town, it’s the perfect spot,” Bourcher-Colbert said, adding that the trail’s series of 52 switchbacks built into the rock give visitors a “Lord of the Rings” feeling and create a unique hiking experience.
When it comes to a relatively short, dramatic and awe-inspiring hike, Beacon Rock is the first trail that comes to mind for many Camas and Washougal families.
Diana Hooper, 72, of Washougal, has been taking family and friends to hike Beacon Rock every year since she moved to the area 47 years ago.
“People have been coming to visit me here in the Northwest for all those years, and I always try to take them here to the rock. Of course, when they first get here, they look at me and say, ‘Are you kidding me? We can’t hike that,’” Hooper said.
Hooper’s friend, Teresa Casad, was visiting from the San Francisco Bay area last weekend. Casad said she had similar concerns about the hike, but on the return trip from the top she had only great things to say about the experience.
“This is so incredibly beautiful,” Casad said.
Hooper has climbed to the 848-foot summit of Beacon Rock at least 52 times.
The state park also is popular with rock climbers and is considered one of the best “traditional climbing” spots in the Northwest.
The northwest corner of Beacon Rock is open to climbing year-round, but the east face is closed due to environmental sensitivity.
Experienced rock climber Pat Hennessy was holding a rope for climber Luis Armondo Gill, who was dangling several hundred feet above him on the northwest corner of the monolith, attracting wondrous gazes from a steady flow of passing hikers, on Sunday.
“It’s definitely an exciting place to climb as there is a little more loose rock than other places,” Hennessy said of Beacon Rock. “Having the right gear for protection is very important. This place just really keeps you on your toes.”
Beacon Rock is the core of a young volcano that erupted around 57,000 years ago. Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark gave Beacon Rock its name while camping below the rock on their journey to the Pacific Ocean in 1805, and then again on their return trip in 1806.
For Native Americans, the great rock was always a beacon of sorts as it marked the last of the great rapids on the Columbia River and the beginning of tidal influence from the Pacific Ocean, 150 miles away.
In the early 20th century, Henry J. Biddle, a prominent botanist, geologist and engineer, purchased Beacon Rock and built the trail to the top between 1916 and 1918. The trail was considered an engineering marvel at the time, but it was originally constructed as a private trail for Biddle’s family and friends.
In 1935, Biddle’s heirs deeded the rock to the state of Washington for use as a park.
Hooper remembers when she could run up and down the rock without passing another person.
“I miss those days, but I think Washougal and Camas combined only had about 5,000 people when I moved here, so things are much different now,” Hooper said, adding that she does like seeing the state park return to a more natural state after trail construction marred the area more than 100 years ago.
“The trees are filling in, which is great to see because our great hope for the Columbia River Gorge Natural Scenic Area is to maintain its natural beauty,” Hooper said.