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Permits will soon be needed for scenic Columbia River Gorge drive

Pilot program is designed to help overcrowding

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Cars snake along the Historic Columbia River Highway along the waterfall corridor in the Columbia River Gorge. Congestion on busy days has been so bad the traffic impairs the ability of emergency vehicles to respond to accidents.
Cars snake along the Historic Columbia River Highway along the waterfall corridor in the Columbia River Gorge. Congestion on busy days has been so bad the traffic impairs the ability of emergency vehicles to respond to accidents. (Oregon Department of Transportation) Photo Gallery

Visitors to the Columbia River Gorge wishing to drive the historic highway waterfall corridor after May 23 will need a permit to do so.

The permits can be had for a $2 transaction fee, and are available at the Forest Service recreation website.

A small amount of free same-day permits will be available at the Gateway to the Gorge Visitor Center in Troutdale and the Cascade Locks Historical Museum.

Permits have been required at the Multnomah Falls parking lot off Interstate 84 since 2020, and a permit has also been required to access the Dog Mountain trailhead since 2018. Those are different from this new program, which is set to end after Labor Day.

The numbers of visitors traveling to the country’s only National Scenic Area has swollen in recent years, forcing the U.S. Forest Service, the Oregon Department of Transportation, and Multnomah County to attempt to mitigate the effects of overcrowding by limiting the number of people using the busiest areas on certain heavy use days.

The most recent attempt is a pilot program requiring visitors to obtain an online permit if they want to visit the popular waterfalls corridor during the peak visitor season.

According to Stan Hinatsu, the Recreation Program Manager for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, this latest permit is an attempt to improve safety in the popular area, as well as protect cultural and natural resources.

“Our last survey from 2016 showed that visitation was 2.1 million visitors annually for the National Scenic Area,” said Hinatsu, “and that was just for the Forest Service.”

Hinatsu said visitor numbers had risen by 35 percent in just five years. Data from the latest study has yet to be analyzed, but numbers have undoubtedly risen more.

Vehicle traffic had gotten so heavy along the historic highway that it had led to huge back-ups, which have blocked access for emergency vehicles. The heavy traffic also causes damage to natural resources, and historical sites.

Hinatsu has traveled the corridor himself to see how bad the overcrowding has become.

“It took me an hour to go half a mile from Wahkeena Falls to Multnomah Falls,” Hinatsu said. “That’s the kind of use we are seeing and the congestion we are seeing.

“Where that is problematic is that it prevents EMS access because ambulances and fire trucks can’t pass because the other side is full, so it becomes a safety problem.”

Hinatsu said that there have been a number of incidents where emergency vehicles could not get through in a timely manner. Search and Rescue crews often need to access this area, too.

The new permit is time specific, and will be required between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. There will be check stations at the Bridal Veil exit off I-84, (exit 28), and at the Ainsworth State Park exit, (exit 35). Hikers arriving after 9 a.m. will also need the permit to access the trailheads.

Each permit lists a time slot, and visitors can arrive at either end of the Waterfall Corridor anytime during that time slot. If you arrive after your permit time slot, you can take a shuttle, public transit, or a tour instead. Once you arrive, you can stay as long as you like.

Also, the Angel’s Rest Trailhead and Bridal Veil State Scenic Viewpoint are not within the permit area.

Hinatsu reminds the public that this is a pilot project, and it will be evaluated at the end of the season, and public input will be accepted.

“No one wanted to do this,” Hinatsu said. “It’s really important to note that these measures are necessary to mitigate congestion and the safety issues.”

This is a new permit, and is not to be confused with the permit for parking at Multnomah Falls. That is a separate permit that allows parking in the I-84 parking lot off Exit 31. It is also a time-specific permit, and is available at the website. Before the permit program, traffic trying to enter the parking lot was often backed up onto the highway.

It’s not just hikers and tourists. Other recreationists crowding the Gorge include fishermen, sailboarders, and state park goers.

For instance, anglers targeting Drano Lake fill the boat launch parking quickly, and late comers park along the edges of Washington State Route 14 with boat trailers. On weekends these are parked along the shoulder, often on both sides, stretching for nearly a mile.

Other congested areas include the Cape Horn, Dog Mountain, and Catherine Creek trailheads, as well as popular areas near the town of Hood River, where the sailboarders gather.

There are ways to visit the historic highway without driving. You can take the Columbia Area Transit (CAT) bus from Gateway Transit Center in the Portland Metro Area, Cascade Locks, and Hood River directly to Multnomah Falls. Tickets are available online, including yearly passes.

Private tours provide another route, albeit for a fee. Use Exit 22 for the Gray Line Waterfall Trolley. For the Sasquatch Shuttle, use Bridal Veil Exit 28.

Visitation is always lower on weekday mornings and on cooler, rainy days. Weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day see the highest visitation, and summer weekend days between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. are generally the busiest. Try visiting at off-peak times to avoid the heavy traffic.

As the numbers of visitors from out of state, and internationally, are expected to continue to increase, the Forest Service and their partners are committed to looking for innovative ways to continue to mitigate these pressures, so everyone can enjoy a visit to this unique and beautiful area in our backyard.

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