When Michangelo unveiled his masterpiece David in 1504, the sculpture was placed in a public square outside the Palazzo Vecchio. It stood there, open to the public and the natural elements for three and a half centuries until it was moved to the Galleria dell’Accademia to protect and preserve it. In 2019, I saw the David sculpture, but another layer of protection had been added: strict, timed reservations to limit the number of people crowding around this one-of-a-kind work of art.
This spring and summer, our own one-of-a-kind natural wonder, the Columbia Gorge's waterfall corridor, is receiving the David treatment. Starting May 24 and continuing through Labor Day weekend, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is requiring timed permits for private vehicles in the waterfall corridor from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.
When planning my trip to Italy, I remember feeling annoyed that I had to reserve a timed entry ticket for David and several other places. But pre-planning ensured I would be able to see and experience everything I had hoped to experience without being overburdened by huge crowds. It allowed me to appreciate the wonder of what I was seeing. As a Gorge resident, I am hopeful the waterfall corridor timed-permits will provide visitors with a similar experience.
When people come to see and visit the Gorge for the first time (or the second or third), they typically have one thing on their mind, the famed waterfalls along the Historic Columbia River Highway (HCRH). These breathtaking wonders, and the remarkable road that accesses them, bring over three million visitors a year and the numbers are increasing.
While this has been the norm for visiting some of the most loved and visited treasures in the world, it’s a new concept for the Gorge. This didn’t happen overnight; it’s been a hot topic for over 10 years between land managers, local residents, ODOT and visitors, who have been witnessing epic traffic jams comparable to Los Angeles or Seattle at rush hour.
Permits are not new to the Gorge. In recent years the U.S. Forest Service has taken steps to address congestion and safety issues at Dog Mountain during wildflower season by requiring timed reservations to park at the trailhead. Over the last four years, the Dog Mountain system has been a success, not only alleviating the problems it aimed to address, but also improving the experience for those visiting the trail.
We are living the grand experiment of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area with its protections of the region's communities and lands. There’s already a lively conversation about how to balance the two, while providing access to all those who love this special place. Over the last two years, international visitation has been but a trickle, yet the numbers at Gorge attractions have not only maintained but increased during the low seasons. The time is now to continue this experiment, and to look at how to manage these special places with systematic changes that transform the way people access the Gorge, before the international travelers return and we see even more demand and epic traffic jams.
Unlike many of the other international treasures that require timed entry and permits, the Gorge's wonders offer alternatives to visiting without a permit by using public transportation or active transportation options such as walking and biking, including the Columbia Gorge Express and the Dog Mountain Shuttle. These lands belong to all of us, and while permits may not be a perfect solution, the combination of permits and public transportation goes a long way toward ensuring equal access to these world-class places. We all should feel so lucky to visit these places, just maybe not all of us at the same time.
The times of lightly congested areas is a thing of the past, and we need to embrace being part of the solution instead of stuck in a traffic jam. If you’re planning a trip out to the Gorge this year, do your homework first and check out Ready, Set, GOrge for all of the latest conditions, permits needed and opportunities to visit without a personal vehicle. You can still soak in the wonder of the Gorge, but I encourage you to put in a little planning first.