Hikers have been champing at the bit to get out into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and the Columbia River Gorge after being stuck at home for months due to stay-at-home orders concerning the Covid-19 pandemic.
The good news is that as of May 15, trailheads and access sites were opened all across the region, although many popular sites remain closed out of concern for public safety.
Columbia River Gorge
In the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (CRGNSA), most trails are now open, according to Rachel Pawlitz, a public affairs specialist for the US Forest Service. However, she cautions that many of the most popular, and most crowded trails, are still shuttered.
“I want to emphasize that the waterfall area on the Oregon side and the Dog Mountain trail on the Washington side are still closed,” said Pawlitz.
There are still trails closed due to the damage caused by the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017, too. These include the Eagle Creek Trail itself, the Oneonta Trail, sections of the Pony Falls Trail, and a few others.
Pawlitz is also concerned because law enforcement officers have noted that there has been poor compliance by the public concerning some of the closures. There have been hikers who are ignoring closed signs and walking past barriers to enter some of the closed trailheads, including Dog Mountain.
“If you come out to the Gorge and see a closed sign you should believe it,” she said. “We haven’t missed taking them down.
“The open sites are open already, and the signs have been taken down. I think there is a culture out there of thinking we are behind the curve. Please don’t take matters into your own hands and ignore or remove signs. These areas are genuinely still closed.”
Pawlitz said there is as yet no set date for reopening trails that are still closed.
While the Dog Mountain Trail is closed, most trails on the Washington side are now open including a few popular trails such as Coyote Wall, Catherine Creek, and the Weldon Wagon Trail.
It is still important for recreationists to follow safe practices such as social distancing, and Pawlitz asks that the public do a little research before heading out and have a Plan B or even a Plan C in case their original destination is crowded. It is safer to find another trail then to squeeze in at a crowded trailhead.
Gifford Pinchot National Forest
All the trails are legally open in the Cowlitz Valley Ranger District of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, according to Jack Thorne, a member of the forest recreation staff. However, snow levels are still low enough to impact some trails, and there are other concerns, too.
“We have not been able to get in any of our usual trail maintenance yet,” said Thorne, “and many trails are still inaccessible because of snow.”
He reports that snow levels in some areas are still as low as 3,500 feet, and just about anything above 4,000 feet is still under snow.
“Also, if the more adventurous people are trying to reach some of the snowed-in trailheads, they should remember that the roads are not plowed. When they try too hard to get in, they should not push themselves beyond their abilities or the abilities of their vehicle.”
Thorne said this is especially important right now. When the emergency crews are called out to assist, it puts them in a dangerous position concerning the risks of public interaction during a pandemic.
Also, since the trails have not been maintained yet, hikers could find the trails blocked by downed trees or other hazards.
There are some recreation sites that still remain closed at this time, including all campgrounds, the Lower Falls Recreation Area, the Ape Cave Interpretative Site and Forest Road 8303 leading to the site, and the Johnston Ridge Observatory. Also, State Route 504, also known as the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway will remain closed and gated at milepost 45 near Coldwater Lake.
For a full listing of developed recreation sites that are open and closed, please check the Gifford Pinchot National Forest’s recreation website.
Sue Ripp, the public affairs officer for the Gifford Pinchot NF, said that recreationist are advised to call the ranger station in the district they are headed to in order to get the latest information before they head out. She also advised the public to come prepared with personal protective gear, and to use bathroom facilities with caution.
“Respect the closures, recreate responsibly, and please pack out your trash,” said Ripp.
She also said the public still needs to stay aware during the ongoing pandemic, and practice safety, such as social distancing. It’s not just the public at risk.
“The closures are not just about the public’s safety,” she said, “but also about the safety of our employees.”
Hikers and other recreationists are once again reminded that, while these areas are finally opening up, if there is over-crowding at sites, or visitors do not act safely, these areas can be closed again. So, enjoy the special places that you have missed, but do so in a responsible manner, so they can be enjoyed by all.