If you’ve ever visited Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge on a hot day, you know to expect a crowd.
Oregon’s tallest waterfall is barely a 30-minute drive from downtown Portland, and it is frequently filled to capacity as thousands of hikers, amateur photographers and tourists flood the attraction in the summer months.
That posed a significant logistical challenge for the U.S. Forest Service when it recently reopened the attraction for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re coming up on a weekend that’s going to be hot weather and people often look at that as a cool space so I am concerned this weekend that we’ll see crowds, long lines, standing in the heat,” said Kevin Gorman, executive director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge. “That could be pretty dangerous for everybody.”
The Forest Service has anticipated this rush of visitors though — especially in a summer where record numbers of people are flocking to outdoor attractions. The agency has beefed up restrictions on masks and social distancing, prohibited parking along the Historic Columbia River Highway, canceled shuttle service to the falls and is prepared to restrict access from Interstate 84 one the area reaches a 300-person capacity.
Officials also plan to implement a mandatory reservation policy in the near future. If you want to visit the falls, you’re going to have to plan ahead.
Gorman said we might see these types of restrictions stick, long after the pandemic, at some of the gorge’s most popular attractions.
“This area and the waterfall corridor, this is the go-to place,” he said. “As a result, I think we’re going to start seeing this part of the gorge treated more like a national park than the way it’s been treated in the past.”
One of the biggest headaches in the most popular parts of the gorge is the traffic: cars clogging the tiny two-lane historic highway, parked haphazardly along its shoulders and creating endless traffic jams.
Gorman forecast that we might see restricted vehicle access along that highway during future summers, with officials keeping it open only to local residents, cyclists and an increasingly robust network of shuttles.
“That might be what we see in the future,” he said, “that there will be a lot of frequent shuttles that will take people, say, along the waterfall corridor, and less ability to just go out and park.”
He said this isn’t a viable option during the COVID-19 pandemic because of close proximity necessary to shuttle thousands of visitors from trail to waterfall. But he said officials are already studying new methods to circulate air and make that type of mass transit safer.
Gorman acknowledged that an all-shuttle trip to the Columbia River Gorge will be a distinct change from how people visit today. “You’ll have to plan ahead and really be smart about how you do this,” he said.
But he said that might be a small price to pay to make the Gorge safer, better managed and less congested for generations to come.
“You wouldn’t have the mile long backups you see on the Historic Highway.”