A Gorge-ous Bikeway
You can really touch history in the Columbia River Gorge, especially through an ambitious project that puts you face to face with one of the true wonders of the state: the old Columbia River Gorge Scenic Highway that is now becoming a byway restored.
The Columbia River Gorge is a many-splendored place for moments of beauty and heart-pounding scenery; many places like Elowah Falls capture the hearts of visitors and never let them forget that Oregon provides amazing moments.
It is also scenery that is easier to reach for cyclists and hikers who like to leave their cars behind so to touch a bit of Oregon history too. Near John Yeon State Park (Exit 35 off I-84), the Oregon Dept of Transportation is applying final touches as they transform a section of the old Columbia River Scenic Highway into a part of the Columbia Gorge State Trail.
“We want this trail to feel like a piece of the historic scenic highway,” noted ODOT spokesperson Kristen Stallman. “It was such an important road when it was designed by Samuel Lancaster more than a century ago, so it’s critical to us and visitors to hold on to that significant story.”
The old Gorge roadway was designed to “fit into nature,” with scenic overlooks and rest stops and places to ponder the wonder and majesty of the Gorge.
Back in 1917, the roadway was known as “America’s Greatest Highway,” and it was a marvel! It was also a dream come true for Sam Hill, the chief financial backer and Lancaster, the chief designer. Together, they constructed a roadway that would lie lightly on the landscape and take a visitor’s breath away for the stunning scenery and outdoor adventures.
But through the decades, much of the old Gorge highway was lost to I-84 construction and a faster way to move people and commerce. For the past 20 years that’s been changing as nearly 13 miles of abandoned scenic highway have been restored for non-motorized use.
The new mile and a half section at Yeon State Park is the latest addition to what is called the Columbia Gorge State Trail. It offers much the same experience as visitors enjoyed a century ago, but this time it is exclusive to hikers and cyclists. Right now, the trail includes places like the Oneonta Tunnel, the Mosier Twin Tunnels, and Viento State Park, where you can explore a mile-long trail section that offers spectacular Gorge scenery.
The latest restoration effort is close to conclusion at McCord and Moffett Creeks and ODOT’s Stallman said the new bikeway section will be a cyclist’s dream-come-true: “Right now, cyclists are forced to ride the shoulder of I-84 in this stretch. It is not a pleasant ride considering the heavy traffic, so this new trail section provides opportunity for a connection through the Gorge that is safer. “
In fact, once it’s completed, cyclists will enjoy a dedicated trail stretching from Troutdale to Cascade Locks.
Kevin Price, regional manager for the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department, said that the new trail section at McCord Creek will bring more visitors into the Gorge where they can discover what he calls The Lost Falls. “Elowah Falls and Upper McCord Creek Falls are two waterfalls just off the beaten path and many Gorge visitors folks don’t even know they exist,” said Price.
The short, easy (note: it is not wheelchair accessible) hike to the falls is just off the new state trail section and does have a bit of elevation gain, but not too steep. “It’s fantastic to get our visitors into areas they haven’t been able to visit or didn’t know about,” added Price.
Stallman said that the new section could open in July, and she agreed that the trail section is a rewarding effort. It is also another step in the long process of transforming the old abandoned roadway into something special for Oregonians to cherish and enjoy with pride.
“It really makes you appreciate the natural habitats and the natural history we have in the Columbia River Gorge. You pass streams and waterfalls and forests – the entire landscape of this place is so breathtaking – you need to take time to enjoy it and this trail makes that possible.”
About the Author: Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.
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