SKAMANIA — For 13 years, Dan Huntington, godfather of the Cape Horn trail, thought nothing much was likely to come of the scenic loop at the west end of the Columbia River Gorge.
The approximately seven-mile trail was a mish-mash of old wagon roads, an abandoned postal foot route, a county road and paths connected by trail tread built informally by hikers.
It offered stunning views from Pioneer Point and passed under a waterfall south of state Highway 14. Hikers embraced the route, but otherwise it was pretty much an orphan, despite being almost entirely on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service.
But now the orphan is a favorite child.
Cape Horn trail has been re-routed and improved by Forest Service crews and volunteers of the Washington Trails Association.
It has two tunnels — costing $2.05 million — safely passing hikers under state Highway 14. A log-stringer foot bridge is under construction at the muddiest of the creek crossings.
“Five years ago, if you’d told me this is what it would be like today, I would have been incredulous,’’ said Huntington, a west Skamania County resident. “It’s been one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever experienced to watch what the Forest Service has done with Cape Horn in the past year and a half.’’
Huntington first got interested in the Cape Horn area in February 1996. As a real estate saleman, he learned that the Forest Service owned Pioneer Point, a viewpoint on the rim of Cape Horn with a sweeping panorama to the south and east.
The parcel was landlocked, surrounded by private property.
“With no way to get to it, it was never going to be anything more than a playground for adjacent property owners,’’ he said. “I realized then that I couldn’t just stand by and let that happen.’’
Initially, the trail was controversial. But support has broadened gradually. Huntington and his friends have led hikes, published maps and lobbied agencies to improve public access at Cape Horn and on public lands between Washougal to Stevenson.
The centerpiece of Cape Horn — the trail — is coming along nicely, he said.
“For 13 years, it seemed like nothing was ever going to happen.’’ Huntington said. “The Forest Service was moving terribly slowly or not at all — except for some important land acquisitions.
“But since they completed the environmental analysis 18 or 19 months ago, they’ve just been going gangbusters on this trail.”
There are at least a half dozen sections already improved via wider tread, brushing and more gentle grades — particularly in the couple of miles between the parking lot on state Highway 14 and Pioneer Point.
“Now you’ve got sections that used to be killers where the trail got steep, then steeper, then steeper still, and all you could think about was not falling down, not twisting an ankle, just making it up, or on the way down, not hurting your knees,’’ he said. “They’ve taken that section and put in beautifully built long switchbacks, actually chiseling the trail into stone and providing new views that weren’t there before.’’
Stan Hinatsu, recreation manager for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, said the Forest Service put most of its effort on the section of the trail above state Highway 14 this year in preparation to the Aug. 13 dedication of the overlook.
“It’s been a lot of work, and there’s been a lot of collaboration,’’ Hinatsu said.”We’re pretty happy about the progress made this year.’’
Cape Horn trail is likely to get less attention in the coming year, he said. The Forest Service has a busy trail agenda in the Catherine Creek-Coyote Wall area of western Klickitat County — and limited staff.
More re-routing is planned below Highway 14, he said.
The trail will be relocated to the west to bypass a series of switchbacks crossing a talus slope.
Talus slopes are habitat for the Larch Mountain salamander, a sensitive species.
The rocky slope also is difficult to walk and takes extra maintenance, he added.
The trail passes under a waterfall currently. Plans are to move the trail below the waterfall and cross the creek on a bridge.
The Forest Service has concern about aquatic invertebrates that live in the waterfall area, Hinatsu said.
The tunnels under state Highway 14 also are impressive.
It was good fortune that improvements for the highway through the Columbia Gorge dovetailed with Forest Service planning for the trail, said Dan Harkenrider, manager of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
“The realignment coincided with our planning and everyone realized we needed to find a safe way to get people back and forth across Highway 14,’’ Harkenrider said.
Hinatsu said the tunnels likely will not open until mid-autumn.
The tunnels will not open until the Washington Department of Transportation accepts the project as done from the contractor, he said. That probably will not happen until revegetation work is completed in late October.
Ryan Ojerio, Southwest Washington coordinator for the Washington Trails Association, said his group has had more than 30 work parties at Cape Horn in the past couple years.
The Columbia Cascades Trail Skills College has used Cape Horn as a field classroom in the past two years to teach trail construction, design and restoration.
“The handicapped accessible section near the overlook was designed as part of our Skills College class on trail design,’’ Ojerio said.
Just south of the west tunnel, the WTA is building a bridge to span a small creek. The National Forest Foundation awarded a $10,000 grant for the bridge.
Two large logs came from trees cut to straighten Highway 14 and the third came from the Bonneville Power Administration near Beacon Rock State Park.
Ojerio said the bridge is due to be finished by the end of September.
Huntington said the Cape Horn trail has been greatly improved for both the hiker experience and long-term durability.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing the Forest Service take on more projects like Cape Horn,’’ he said.