In our view: A Better Gorge

Highway, trail improvements around Cape Horn will benefit motorists, hikers

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Mention “Cape Horn” to folks in southern Washington, and many of them will not immediately think of southernmost South America. No, they’ll think of the spectacular eastward viewpoint in the Columbia River Gorge.

If there’s one spot in the Gorge from which more photos are taken, we suspect it might be on the Oregon side at Crown Point Vista House, a few miles west of the Cape Horn lookout. But that could be due to Crown Point’s superior parking and walking-about opportunities. Back across the Columbia River, the tight squeeze at the Cape Horn highway pullout encourages an ooh-ah-point-shoot-and-run strategy for photographers.

There are no plans to expand or otherwise improve the Cape Horn pullout itself. As state transportation project manager Chris Tams noted in a recent Columbian story, the small roadside spot is “in a very difficult spot to do anything with.” We see that as a good thing, because we like relatively peaceful Cape Horn the way it is.

It’s also gratifying to know that the Washington Department of Transportation has no grandiose plans to change the traditional nature of state Highway 14 as a leisurely drive through one of America’s most scenic canyons. The way we see it, if motorists want a quicker passage through the Gorge, they can always zip on over to Interstate 84 in Oregon.

But this is not to say the area around Cape Horn cannot be improved in other ways and made safer. And that’s exactly what’s going on this summer as WSDOT continues working to straighten a perilous curve of Highway 14 just west of the Cape Horn pullout. The $4.48 million project (state and federal funds) also includes new left-turn lanes at Highway 14 and Salmon Falls road.

Additionally — and this is great news for both motorists and hikers — the state is rerouting the Cape Horn Trail, using a $2.05 million federal grant. Two pedestrian tunnels under the highway — about a mile apart — will allow hikers safer passage across the highway.

More trail improvements are under way elsewhere. Above the highway, a stopping point known as Pioneer Point is taking shape and will offer hikers an even better view of the Gorge than what’s available at the highway pullout.

These enhancements are scheduled by the summer’s end. And as Kathie Durbin reported in a recent Columbian story, the finishing touches will occur just in time for the 25th anniversary of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act.

Again, though, the basic travel experience of this route through the Gorge will not be changed, just made safer. As Tams explained, “We’re not trying to make it into a 55-miles-per-hour corridor. There are corners that are posted at 25 mph, and they really mean 25 mph.” For the next several weeks, traffic slowdowns and single-lane use will be frequent. But when the projects are completed, a great place will be made even better. Motorists will drive with more confidence, and hikers will feel more freedom to explore the Cape Horn Trail without having to dodge traffic.

One warning, though: When these projects on state Highway 14 are completed, don’t take that as a license to put your pedal to the metal. You won’t save much time on your drive because of these improvements. There’ll be no new reasons for “Giddyup!”, just new reason to celebrate Northwesterners’ abiding zeal for preserving the wonders of nature. In many other places, lesser wonders are sadly taken for granted.