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June 30, 2022

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Beacon Rock parking plan aims to improve safety, access to Columbia River Gorge site

By , Columbian staff writer
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10 Photos
A wide highway shoulder is what passes for a parking lot at the base of Beacon Rock.
A wide highway shoulder is what passes for a parking lot at the base of Beacon Rock. (Scott Hewitt/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The view from atop Beacon Rock is one of the grandest the Columbia River Gorge has to offer.

Visitor parking on the ground below is some of the Gorge’s worst.

That could change over the next decade or so if funding comes through for a plan to upgrade parking, pedestrian safety and the overall visitor experience at Beacon Rock, said Heath Yeats, state parks area manager.

The price tag was estimated at $27 million a few years ago and likely has risen since then, Yeats said.

Beacon Rock is an ancient volcanic basalt plug. It’s still standing in place long after the landscape around it was eroded away by the ice age floods that carved the Gorge, Yeats said. In 1918, local landowner Henry Biddle completed the switchback trail and fenced walkway that’s still there today, inviting visitors to zigzag safely up the side of the rock to a tight viewpoint at the top.

Beacon Rock serves as a sort of informal western gateway to the Washington side of the Gorge, Yeats said. Its popularity has soared in recent years. But there’s never been a proper parking lot below the landmark, which rises 848 feet alongside state Highway 14 just east of the Skamania General Store. The only convenient option for visitors is slowing down while still on the highway and pulling onto what’s essentially a wide, gravel-layered shoulder.

That gravel strip is one-eighth of a mile long on the south side of the highway where it curves around Beacon Rock. Oncoming traffic visibility is terrible, Yeats said.

There’s a lot more to Beacon Rock State Park than just that one towering landmark. Across the highway and uphill to the north of the rock itself are campsites and 26 miles of scenic hiking trails on nearly 4,500 acres. A small park headquarters is on the north side of the highway too.

All of which makes for a really hazardous situation as visitors inevitably wander back and forth across a highway that’s posted at 55 mph, Yeats said. (Signs suggest that drivers slow down in this zone but they rarely do, he added.)

Two recent disruptions of life as we know it added to the sheer volume of visitors, Yeats said. First, the massive 2017 Eagle Creek Fire on the Oregon side of the Gorge drove new tourist traffic over to Washington. Next came the COVID-19 pandemic, which motivated more people to get outdoors for health and social distancing reasons.

Nowadays, you’re likely to see parked cars stretching along the highway far beyond the gravel parking zone on weekends, Yeats said.

New parking plan

Washington State Parks was concerned about safety — and a quality visiting experience — at Beacon Rock long before the Eagle Creek Fire and the pandemic increased the pressure, Yeats said.

In 2018, the state parks department and a consultant worked with the public to evaluate possibilities and come up with a new plan.

The plan calls for all roadside parking to be removed and the gravel zone along Highway 14 to be closed except for a few short-term and wheelchair-accessible spaces just east of Beacon Rock.

To the west, a new highway exit opposite Little Road will lead into a separated parking loop with space for 64 cars and three recreational vehicles. The loop will also be the site of a new visitor center and restroom building. A new trail will zigzag eastward from the parking lot to join the existing Beacon Rock Trail, which climbs the rock.

Crucially, a new pedestrian highway underpass will connect this parking lot with the rest of the park to the north, where visitors will find spillover parking spaces for 25 more cars and a new walking path that follows Hamilton Mountain Road as it ascends toward the park’s upper trailheads. A new traffic circle will complete the site’s safety upgrades.

The highway underpass is planned for a natural gully below the highway, which will minimize its impact on the landscape, said Renée Tkach, who manages the Towns to Trails initiative for the advocacy organization Friends of the Columbia Gorge. The nonprofit facilitated this pedestrian improvement by purchasing 4.5 acres of land that were offered by a supportive local landowner, then reselling it for parkland when the state was ready, Tkach said. The price was under $200,000, Tkach said.

“We don’t have a big budget for land acquisition,” Yeats said.

Now, Washington State Parks is just waiting for more money to make the project happen, Yeats said. He estimated it would take at least 10 years to complete. The parking expansion is limited by both the complicated landscape and prohibitions on scenic-area development, Yeats said.

“Beacon Rock is one of the diamonds of the Gorge,” said Tkach. “But it doesn’t have the right ‘wow’ factor when you approach it. This is going to add just a little bit of extra glitter that says, ‘You are in an awesome state park.’ ”

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