Oregon summer is almost upon us, and if you’re itching to get back out to enjoy the Columbia River Gorge like we used to before the Eagle Creek Fire in September 2017, here’s an update on what’s going on in the Gorge. It’s equally important to honor the way the Gorge has changed, respect the ecosystem, and stay safe on the trail. Most importantly, we must teach our children to be gentle stewards of our beloved Gorge after the fire.
My Experience on the Trails
On a sunny day during spring break my family and I hiked Ponytail Falls. We parked in the lot for Horsetail Falls with what seemed like 500 other people, and hiked the .4 mile to Lower Horsetail Falls. This was my second hike in the Columbia River Gorge post-burn.
The falls were gorgeous, the terrain and views as beautiful as ever. Feeling the strong, yet fragile earth under my feet, seeing the half-charred trees and listening to the voracious, seemingly eternal rush of the falls was simply amazing. It felt wonderful to be back in the Gorge, but it also felt disappointing and invasive. Driving 1.5 hours round trip to hike less than one mile felt like a waste of resources, and with all the people on the trail the hike seemed more like a walk downtown Portland during lunch hour. I was reminded how selfish we humans can be; all these people trampling like ants on a vulnerable ecosystem. It felt like we were more of an invasive species than ivy.
The State of the Forest
The Columbia River Gorge has become our wise, resilient yet fragile elder. It deserves our love and respect, but also more than ever, it’s time to tread lately on her trails and be a faithful steward as the land stabilizes and rebuilds in these years following the Eagle Creek Fire.
I interviewed Maegan Jossy, the Outreach Manager at Friends of the Columbia Gorge about how spending time in a burn area is different than being in a regular wilderness area. In her own words:
There is a bit of a learning curve because a burn area is different. The way you approach the Columbia River Gorge is different than before the fire.
Burns are naturally occurring about every 100 years. Ironically, the Eagle Creek Fire happened right around the 100-year mark for the Gorge. Due to environmental changes, they (burns) are happening more regularly.
Burn areas are classified as light, medium, and high. There are parts of the Gorge, like Latourell Falls, that weren’t touched by the fire at all. Then there are parts of the Gorge, like east and west of Eagle Creek that haven’t even been assessed yet. Rock slides and landslides have completely taken out trails, so major work is required and assessments must be done to deem areas safe to open. Full recovery of some parts of the Gorge may take decades.
Columbia River Gorge Trail Update
I also chatted with Bryna Campbell of Super Nature Adventures, and she shared there’s been remarkable progress on getting trails repaired since the Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia River Gorge. While we had many updates the first year after the fire, there’s been less information circulating about the current state of the Gorge. Thankfully, several of the most iconic trails in the area have opened within the last six months Campbell said.
Last Thanksgiving, the trail areas at Multnomah Falls and Angel’s Rest reopened, and Friends of the Gorge regularly updates this page which includes a handy map of open/closed areas. Super Nature Adventures gave me this Columbia River Gorge update and summary of family-friendly hikes:
- Steigerwald Lake NWR is at the entrance to the Gorge on the Washington side and is a wonderful place for families to see wildlife and get views of Mt Hood and Vista House. This trail is very accessible for little ones; flat, wide, and wheelchair/stroller-friendly. In late spring, the odds are very good that families will see turtles as well as birds. About two miles long.
- Bridal Veil Falls is one of the closest trails to Portland and has remained open almost the entire time. The fire did not impact this area, so it’s a nice place to see what the Columbia River Gorge looked like prefire. This area features two short trails (less than a mile each); one is paved for wheelchair/stroller access and is a great place to go with visitors from out of town for great views of the gorge. Bonus: it has a well-maintained bathroom.
- Dry Creek Falls (Cascade Locks) is a nice, longer family hike for older kids with more stamina. The trail is four miles long at a steady incline (but not too steep), with some drop offs at places. There’s some minor fire damage on parts of the trail, so this is an interesting place to explore and discuss how fires impact forests. The waterfall at the end is a great place to hang out for a picnic break before heading back. Cascade Locks businesses were impacted by the fire, so they appreciate regional tourism support.
- Ponytail Falls is another family-friendly trail recently reopened and is one of the places with more dramatic fire damage. You don’t have to go on the trail to see how the landscape has changed. The trail is about a mile long with some switchbacks showing a lot of damaged trees and rock is exposure.
- Catherine Creek Trails is even further into the Columbia River Gorge on the Washington side and one of the BEST places to see spring wildflowers. This trail system has something for everybody with short, paved loops for the little ones, and longer, three to four-mile hikes for kids with more stamina. The season usually peaks in April.
Before heading out to enjoy the Columbia River Gorge, please review these essential safety reminders, plan ahead, and be careful. This article provides other important safety tips.
1. Check the Gorge Weather Report If the weather is rainy, do not go hiking in the Gorge with children or dogs. Friends of the Columbia Gorge reminds us tree roots are destabilized in burn areas, and rainy weather is more prone to mudslides. Also, the Gorge is a different climate, and a calm day in Portland can equal a stormy day in the Gorge.
2. Stay on the Trails
“It’s vitally important people remember to stay on the trails and not create shortcuts,” says Campbell with Super Nature Adventures. “A lot of the area is a bit more fragile than before and shortcuts can create a higher risk of mudslides during rainy season. Staying on the trails helps keep them open and protects them for everyone.”
3. Hike in Flat Areas
When we think of Columbia River Gorge hiking, we think of steep trails with gorgeous hills, but these are the most unstable and potentially dangerous trails. They also have the most vulnerable ecosystems. Consider driving further out and exploring the Washington side of the Gorge mentioned above.
4. Clean Your Shoes
Super Nature Adventures reminds us we can stop the spread of invasive species by cleaning our boots before and after entering the gorge.
Become a Columbia River Gorge Steward
You can help our beautiful Gorge by becoming a member of the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, volunteering, and instilling stewardship ethics in your children. Read more information here about volunteer opportunities for all ages.