North Bonneville: Building Trail Dreams from the Bottom Up

North Bonneville: Building Trail Dreams from the Bottom Up
Drone's-eye view of Beacon Rock State Park, part of a new plan for a Stevenson to North Bonneville trail segment. (photographer: Kenji Sugahara)

Thursday, March 16, 2017

By Renee Tkach
Gorge Towns to Trails Manager

It may seem counterintuitive, but just about everything we take for granted in nature and in human society was built from the bottom up, not the other way around. The same has been proven true when it comes to building on existing recreation resources in the Columbia Gorge to fulfill a bigger vision, and it's currently happening in North Bonneville, WA, just across the Bridge of the Gods from Cascade Locks, OR. 

When Friends of the Columbia Gorge launched Gorge Towns to Trails five years ago,  we fell prey to top-down thinking; we assumed our eventual focus would be working with federal and state agencies to make trail connections on National Scenic Area lands and then connect into Gorge communities. What we didn’t appreciate was the pent-up demand and enthusiasm from Gorge communities to take their community trails and expand them into the undeveloped, natural areas.

Nowhere was this more apparent than the town of North Bonneville, where citizens didn't wait around for funding-dependent government agencies to lead the way. Instead, this motivated community took it upon itself to forge collaborations to benefit both its own members and the Gorge at large. 

Town strives to spread community trails to wildlife refuge, state park and neighboring town

North Bonneville has long wanted to connect its existing 12-mile recreational trail system to Beacon Rock State Park, Pierce National Wildlife Refuge, and nearby Gorge towns Stevenson, WA and Cascade Locks.

Pierce National Wildlife Refuge, WA (photographer: Jim Clapp)

The Bonneville Trails Foundation has been implementing a trails vision for the City of North Bonneville since 2007. This vision is outlined within the official “Bonneville Discovery Trails Plan” and has received unconditional support from the North Bonneville’s City Council and Mayor, along with support for Gorge Towns to Trails. This was an encouraging development: Community groups, not federal agencies, leading the charge to enhance recreation and sustainable tourism in Gorge communities.

Partners coalesce

In an effort to connect neighboring communities to natural areas, U.S. Fish & Wildlife and Washington State Parks have put an emphasis on developing new trails and access projects to their lands. Fish & Wildlife initiated the Urban Wildlife Conservation Program, an effort to create a connected conservation community, with the ultimate goal to garner broad support for conservation.

Both agencies identified the need to provide a reason, and opportunities, for urban residents to find, appreciate, and care for nature in their cities and beyond. In step with Gorge Towns to Trails, these public agencies and the newly formed Bonneville Trails Foundation have a common goal to make a trail connection from the town of North Bonneville to two unique wild areas and recreation.  

Obstacle at hot spring spurs action

View of Table Mountain from the Heartbreak Ridge Trail, affected by the Bonneville Hot Springs closure. (photographer: Maegan Jossy)

However, North Bonneville's trail system and the coalition's plans were literally blocked at the beginning of 2017 when the publicly accessible Bonneville Hot Springs facility was sold to be developed into a private rehabilitation clinic. The hot springs' trailhead was no longer available to the public, and the top of nearby Table Mountain, among the most popular Gorge hiking destinations, necessitated a detour that turned the trek into a 15-miler that relatively few are willing to take on. 

Bonneville Trails Foundation and Washington Trails Association met with the Forest Service to discuss the changed access to Table Mountain, along with the desire to provide future access into downtown North Bonneville via existing city trails. Concerns were expressed about illegal motorized use occurring on Forest Service lands in the area, and the potential for increased use due to the lack of access for hikers and those keeping an eye out for unauthorized use. In the National Scenic Area, off-road motorized use on public lands is not allowed.  The U.S. Forest Service was receptive and requested to stay informed as the group moves forward in their efforts.

The City of North Bonneville and City of Stevenson have led the charge in supporting Gorge Towns to Trails, and have invested into the vision through their work to create connections between the two towns. In 2015, the City of Stevenson built the Trail of the Gods, leading from Skamania Lodge to the Bridge of the Gods, in an effort to connect not only to Cascade Locks but to the Pacific Crest Trail. 

In addition, the City has incorporated the Gorge Towns to Trails vision into its trail master plan and include trail connections leading west, north and east from the center of town, where a public parking area has already been established as a trail hub.

Trails groups have driven new trails in the Gorge

Cape Horn Conservancy work party at Nancy Russell Overlook, Cape Horn trail (photo courtesy of Cape Horn Conservancy)

The success of new trail systems is dependent upon the support provided by local trail groups such as Klickitat Trail Conservancy, Cape Horn Conservancy, Washington Trails Association and Trailkeepers of Oregon. Without these trail groups the public land managers would not be able to consider the demand for new trail development, or the continued stewardship necessary to keep trails open. 
These trail groups are powered by hard-working volunteers and the diligence to be go-to organizations for the appropriate public land managers. Bonneville Trails Foundation is relying on the models of effective organizations that blazed the way in addressing the need to provide support for not only public land managers, but the importance of integrating these trail systems into their communities.  

Stepping up to address big picture on trails

Gorge Towns to Trails is a huge vision, and it will take all of us to bring it to life. With Gorge communities, trail groups, cities, and both states coming together, the vision is inching closer to becoming a reality every day.  Like the old saying “many hands make for light work,” we need everyone to make the dream of Gorge Towns to Trails a reality.

While these communities will be primary benefactors, it is the entire region that will benefit from this project as it will be a first of its kind effort in providing an efficient, safe, and non-motorized accessibility system to popular local trailheads that currently face trespassing and overcrowding issues.  

Get involved! Attend the next Bonneville Trails Foundation meeting, to be held at the North Bonneville Event Center on Tuesday, March 21, 3 p.m.

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