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Dec. 5, 2021

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Skamania Lodge in Stevenson adapts amid virus

Resort aims to maintain access to outdoor activities

By , Columbian business reporter
4 Photos
Skamania Lodge's tree house cabins have been very popular this summer as guests seek out socially distanced recreation opportunities. The lodge opened two new tree houses in September.
Skamania Lodge's tree house cabins have been very popular this summer as guests seek out socially distanced recreation opportunities. The lodge opened two new tree houses in September. (Courtesy of Skamania Lodge) Photo Gallery

STEVENSON — It’s been an unusual summer for Skamania Lodge. The COVID-19 pandemic has created an increased demand for the outdoor activities that are at the core of the lodge’s amenities, but it has also thrown a wrench into the group events that normally make up a large part of the lodge’s business traffic.

The success of the lodge’s “tree house” cabins highlights the rise in demand for socially distant outdoor activities. The tree houses have been at or above 90 percent occupancy all summer, according to Skamania Lodge sales and marketing director Kara Owen, due to their natural isolation.

Two new tree houses debuted in September, bringing the total to six. The additions were planned before the pandemic, Owen said, but the timing couldn’t have been better.

Pandemic shutdown

The lodge had to shut down along with all other nonessential businesses during the first couple months of the pandemic, but it was able to begin reopening on May 28.

As a relatively rural county, Skamania County had a lower coronavirus caseload and was among the first to advance to the higher-level reopening stages of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start plan.

The partial reopening came a couple of weeks after Skamania County moved to Phase 2. The lodge’s restaurant was able to reopen when Skamania County moved to Phase 3 in June, with takeout service from the bar. Weddings and receptions were also allowed to resume.

The Safe Start plan went on an indefinite pause later in the summer, and some of the phase regulations were tightened. At that point, the lodge was restricted to small wedding ceremonies, and closed the bar side of the River Rock Lounge back down.

The biggest economic hit has been the unavoidable loss of business conferences and retreats; the kind of corporate gatherings that used to be one of the lodge’s core visitor groups.

“We’re a resort that relies a lot on group business, and of course that has not returned at all, due to the state regulations,” Owen said.

The other half of the lodge’s traffic is leisure guests, which tends to be families or smaller groups. That side of the business has remained strong, she said, possibly even more so than before the pandemic.

Outdoor activities

Skamania Lodge’s big business advantage during the pandemic is its wide array of outdoor amenities — hiking trails, zip lines and the treetop aerial park course — that naturally lend themselves to social distancing. With movie theaters, sports stadiums and most other big entertainment venues shut down, the lodge has been able to position itself as a prime getaway destination.

June, July and August are typically the busiest months at the Skamania Lodge Adventures course, according to operations manager Johnathan Johnson. Overall traffic has been a bit lower than usual this summer, he said, but with group sizes reduced in order to enforce social distancing, the course has still been functionally sold out.

“Most years, we’ve been able to operate with people walking in, but this year we’ve been mostly sticking to the schedule,” he said.

The lodge added new health safety measures such as enhanced cleaning protocols and mandatory masks inside the building, and a few indoor amenities such as the pool and sauna are operating under strict occupancy restrictions. But there aren’t any major plans to try to alter the interior or rebuilt it for the pandemic era, she said, because the focus remains on the outdoor activities.

“The whole premise behind Skamania Lodge was to get people out to the (Columbia River) Gorge to enjoy all the things the Gorge had to offer,” she said.

The one outdoor amenity that hasn’t been readily available is the golf course. The lodge is currently in the process of rebuilding its original 18-hole course as a 9-hole version and adding a 2.5-acre putting course.

The new course was originally scheduled to debut in May, with the putting green following suit in July, but the pandemic stalled construction long enough that the project missed a critical window for grass seeding, pushing the opening back to late spring 2021.

Further challenges

By and large, things had settled into a new rhythm by the end of the summer — at least until the smoke arrived. The lodge was never in any direct fire danger, and it was spared from the smoke for the first several days while other parts of Oregon and Washington became blanketed, resulting in a number of last-minute bookings.

“We’ve got people escaping to us because they’re in smokier areas that we are, and then we’ve got others calling to cancel because of the smoke,” Owen said.

The smoke eventually did reach the lodge, hampering outdoor activities for several days. The aerial park and zip lines had to be shut down, Johnson said. The course opened in 2013 and normally operates year-round. This summer marks the first time it’s had shutdowns that weren’t directly weather-related, he said.

Outdoor activities can be an uncertain prospect during the Pacific Northwest’s rainy winter season, but Owen said the lodge typically still sees plenty of hiking visitors during the winter months — and conditions have never gotten muddy enough to prompt a full closure of the trail system.

There will be some challenges, Owen said — group business normally remains strong in the offseason, but the lodge can’t count on that to carry it through the winter this year. The key will be maintaining access to the outdoor activities while keeping the indoors safe and spread out, she said.

Columbian business reporter