Gorge Scenic Area at 25
THURSDAY: Cape Horn viewpoint gets a makeover.
COMING SUNDAY: Has the Gorge Scenic Area Act lived up to its promise?
COMING MONDAY: Forest Service land purchases enhance the Gorge’s allure.
The Cape Horn pullout on state Highway 14 is the premier Washington viewpoint looking east up the Columbia River Gorge.
It’s also along one of the most dangerous stretches on the winding highway — and not only for motorists.
Hikers using the trail that loops below the highway and to the top of the bluff must cross the busy highway — twice.
But by summer’s end, and just in time for the 25th anniversary of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act, major improvements funded by the Washington Department of Transportation, the Forest Service and Friends of the Columbia Gorge will give this vantage point the stature it has long deserved.
WSDOT is straightening a perilous curve of Highway 14 just west of the Cape Horn pullout, using $4.48 million in federal and state funds. The project also includes new left-turn lanes at the junction of Highway 14 and Salmon Falls Road.
At the same time, the state is building two pedestrian tunnels under the highway, about a mile apart, to give hikers safe passage on a new, rerouted Cape Horn Trail. A federal grant is covering the $2.05 million cost of the twin tunnels.
And above the highway, at a promontory known as Pioneer Point, hikers will find a new circular overlook that offers a vista even more stunning than the one down on the highway, in a location far safer, quieter and more contemplative.
The overlook commemorates the contributions of Nancy Russell, the late founder of Friends of the Columbia Gorge. In the early 1980s, Russell made a $300,000 no-interest loan to the Trust for Public Land, enabling it to buy 12 of the 16 lots originally platted at Pioneer Point for a subdivision called Rim View Estates.
The subdivision never happened. The Forest Service bought those 12 lots and eventually, with the passage of the 1986 National Scenic Area Act, bought more than 50 other properties at Cape Horn from land trusts and willing sellers.
In July 2008, Friends of the Gorge Land Trust dismantled the house on the 4-acre Cleveland property at the edge of the bluff and recontoured the site, clearing the way for its purchase by the Forest Service. Where the house stood, the new overlook is taking shape.
What has happened at Cape Horn is a story of partnerships forged, visions realized, and a big dose of serendipity.
It starts with Russell herself, a Portland housewife who cherished the view from Cape Horn. Not only did she buy the undeveloped land atop the bluff, she also secured options to buy the two houses already built there when their owners or heirs put them up for sale.
Meanwhile, the Cape Horn Conservancy was working with the Forest Service to design an improved Cape Horn trail. The existing trail, made largely by hikers, skirts a nesting area for peregrine falcons along the cliffs south of Highway 14 and crosses wet areas and talus slopes.
The new trail begins and ends at the park-and-ride lot at Salmon Falls Road. The portion of the trail along the south cliffs will be closed from January through June each year to protect nesting falcons.
At the same time the new trail was being planned, state transportation officials were seeking state funding to straighten a series of hazardous curves along Highway 14 near Cape Horn. Only work on the 0.3-mile stretch near milepost 26 is funded in the current transportation funding cycle.
“This corner has averaged a fatality a year for four or five years,” said project manager Chris Tams on a tour of the site. One problem, he said, is the tilt of the roadbed, which pushes motorists toward the center lane. The new straight stretch of highway is being routed 50 feet to the north of the existing roadbed, which will be removed and replaced with native vegetation.
Highway 14 will continue to be a route where traffic moves at a more leisurely pace, Tams said.
“We’re not trying to make it into a 55-miles-per-hour corridor,” he said. “There are corners that are posted at 25 mph, and they really mean 25 mph.”
As for the Cape Horn pullout, there’s no plan to widen it, he said. “It’s in a very difficult spot to do anything with.”
The pedestrian tunnels were added to the project in the past year, after the Forest Service won the federal grant.
Giant backhoes removed some 50,000 cubic yards of rock and dirt from beneath the highway in the process of boring each tunnel. Traffic in the vicinity of Salmon Falls Road will be limited to one lane all summer to accommodate the project.
Each tunnel will be 12 feet wide and 9 feet high, with concrete floors. They’ll be faced at both ends with basalt masonry, in keeping with materials used on projects throughout the scenic area. The state hopes to open the tunnels in late summer or early fall. In the meantime, hikers on Cape Horn will be permitted to use the highway crossing.
For several years, planning by Friends of the Gorge at Cape Horn proceeded independently of the Forest Service’s trail project. At the time, a makeshift loop trail along the bluff detoured around the two houses atop the bluff, forcing the trail back 1,000 feet from the edge.
In 2006, Friends used $1.5 million of a $4.3 million bequest to buy the 4-acre Cleveland property. Friends sold it to the Forest Service for $570,000 and made up the million-dollar difference with a fundraising campaign.
Nancy Russell had secured an option to buy the nearby 32-acre Collins property for $2 million. When she died in 2008, she left that option to Friends in her will. The organization had to scramble to take advantage of the gift. “We didn’t have our bequest yet,” recalled Friends executive director Kevin Gorman. “We had to get a bridge loan to buy it.”
The Forest Service kept its distance. “The Cleveland property up at the top is gorgeous,” scenic area deputy manager Greg Cox told The Columbian in 2009. “It’s icing on the cake. Could we have had a trail without it? Yes.”
Attitudes changed when Friends removed the house on the Cleveland property, Gorman said. “When the house came down, that was the trigger. Locals got together and embraced it. Once you had all those players, it became much easier for the Forest Service to endorse it, and once they did, they jumped in with both feet.”
Over the years, Skamania County had often crossed swords with Friends of the Gorge over the watchdog group’s efforts to protect sensitive lands from development. Russell herself was vilified by county residents. But when the county decided to build a park-and-ride at Salmon Falls, Russell agreed to sell land to the county at a bargain price, on condition the lot would serve as a trailhead and interpretive site for the Cape Horn Trail.
“She was very generous in her negotiations,” said Skamania County Commissioner Paul Pearce. He’s hiked the trail and calls it “a great experience.” He hopes someday it will become a section of a trail stretching from Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge all the way to Stevenson.
Even more amazing: The county, Pearce said, is actively considering “naming the trailhead, or perhaps the park-and-ride, for Nancy Russell.”