This was no usual end of summer in the Columbia River Gorge. Fire raged through Eagle Creek and expanded to the surrounding creek and river drainages, bringing an early close to the most crowded season in the scenic area. During a normal year, autumn is the time of year when the Columbia Gorge mellows out. The maples begin to change colors, and the dry, boot-hardened paths that are well traveled in the summer turn soggy from fall rains. Waterfalls begin to swell, and the spawning salmon return to the creeks as they make their way up the river to their natal streams. This is not the first forest fire in the Columbia Gorge. Life will return to normal in the coming months and years, and some areas that receive fewer visitors will begin to see more. Luckily, improving the recreation infrastructure of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is an effort that is well underway.
The efforts to build a European-style hiking system that extends throughout the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is making considerable progress. It is called Gorge Towns to Trails, and Friends of the Columbia Gorge, the largest recreation and conservation advocacy group for the scenic area, has been working on implementing a grand vision for quite some time. The initiative is a plan to connect trails to the towns on both the Washington and Oregon side of the Columbia River. These towns continue to see a surge of recreation-based businesses offering a restful place to stay along with classic cuisine, not to mention a burgeoning microbrewery and winery scene, to accommodate the growing number of tourists that come annually to the area. However, for the most part, getting from one side of the Columbia Gorge to the other still requires driving from trailhead to trailhead. Gorge Towns to Trails aims to change that.
In the next 20 years, Friends of the Columbia Gorge envisions a completed trail system in the three campaign areas: Washougal to Stevenson to Cascade Locks, Hood River to The Dalles, and Lyle Cherry Orchard to Lyle. In partnership with the Pacific Crest Trail Association, The Port of Cascade Locks and the City of Stevenson, this vision includes a dedicated pedestrian lane across the Bridge of the Gods in Cascade Locks. The trail system will allow visitors to take public transit to one of the many towns located along the Columbia River, and from there they can spend multiple days hiking, biking, and exploring the extensive trail system. The eventual goal is to make an entire loop trail around the Columbia Gorge, totaling over 200 miles.
There are three major sections of the Gorge Towns to Trails vision currently being worked on, and they are:
A 34-mile section of trail connecting Washougal to Stevenson in Washington, and then crossing the river to Cascade Locks, is in the works. Various local, state, and national agencies are collaborating to connect trails through Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge, Cape Horn, Beacon Rock State Park through to Bridge of the Gods, which links to the Pacific Crest Trail. This work includes putting in new trails and expanding the wildlife refuge.
This 20-mile section of trail will connect Hood River with The Dalles. Friends of the Columbia Gorge's Land Trust property, Mosier Plateau, now connects to the town of Mosier. Friends of the Columbia Gorge is now partnering with Mosier's wineries to further connect the trail and create a winery/farm loop for hikers and visitors. Mosier is also the first official Gorge Towns to Trail town.
The Lyle Cherry Orchard, owned by Friends of the Columbia Gorge's Land Trust and open to the public, is a gem of the Washington side of the Columbia River. The goal is to expand the recreation opportunities for the Lyle Cherry Orchard by creating an 8-mile trail connecting it to the town of Lyle, as well as potentially connecting it to 1,000 acres of land owned by the Washington Department of Natural Resources. Friends of the Columbia Gorge is currently in the planning phase to add two new loop trails leading from the existing trail, adding four additional miles. Friends of the Columbia Gorge has partnered with Washington Trails Association to help design and eventually build these new trails.
Preserve the Wonder is an ambitious campaign by Friends of the Columbia Gorge to to preserve 420 acres in the Columbia Gorge for people and wildlife. To date, over $4.1 million has been raised by stakeholders including people like you and me who love the Columbia Gorge and want to see it continue to thrive. You can learn more about Gorge Towns to Trails and Preserve the Wonder on the Friends of the Columbia Gorge website, and click on any banner or link on this page if you are interested in donating or getting involved.
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