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Saturday, March 2, 2024
March 2, 2024

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Car-free visits to Columbia River Gorge sites are possible — with planning

Transit options are growing for Clark County residents

By , Columbian staff writer
2 Photos
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. (Contributed by Oregon Department of Transportation) Photo Gallery

Judging by ease of public-transit access, one might conclude that the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is entirely inside of Oregon.

A recent announcement about new Gorge transit options aimed at staving off traffic jams this summer highlighted bus and shuttle service between an east Portland transit center and the adjacent, waterfall-rich quadrant of the Gorge — all of which is in Oregon.

Gorge transit options for Clark County residents are pretty meager, Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance Director Emily Reed agreed.

“We’re working very hard to find money to extend the system,” she said.

Even before the pandemic, upward of 3 million people were visiting the Gorge annually, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Congestion in parking lots and even on highway approaches has become a big enough problem to spur mandatory, advance parking reservations at some of the Gorge’s most-visited sites, including Multnomah Falls in Oregon and Dog Mountain in Washington. On weekends through June 19, Dog Mountain even requires separate hiking permits.

“We don’t need more tourists. We need to manage sustainably what we have,” Reed said. “Nobody is telling people to come on out and discover the Gorge anymore. People are already coming. What we need is to grow the transit system.”

Locals vs. tourists

The Gorge’s historically modest transit options were launched to serve local residents’ transportation needs, Reed said.

“Understand that the four different counties in the Gorge have different transit systems, and those were created as dial-a-rides for senior citizens to get to medical care,” she said. “That’s how these different systems started to grow.”

Driven by tourism and its impacts, bigger-picture planners are working to integrate transit systems so they work together seamlessly, Reed said. They hope to draw more people to sites and scenery farther east than the famous waterfall corridor.

“Five million visitors per year are visiting very few places,” Reed said. “Eighty percent of the visitors go to 20 percent of the places. There’s so much more to see in the Gorge.”

Getting them there by transit remains a big reach, she said.

“We would like to have an integrated, regional transit system so you can visit without a car,” Reed said. “Car-free is the goal.”

Just remember the many pleasures of letting someone else do the driving, she said.

“You don’t have to deal with congestion. You don’t have to keep your eyes on the road,” Reed said. “You can look out the window at the world going by. You can snuggle with your partner. That’s a lot more fun than driving.”

Gorge Pass

The first step toward car-free Gorge visits is here. The Gorge Pass costs $40 ($20 for children) and is good for unlimited travel for one year (through Dec. 31) on all of the Gorge’s overlapping local systems, including Skamania County Transit, Columbia Gorge Express (of Hood River), The Link (between Hood River and The Dalles) and the Mount Adams Transportation Service (Klickitat County).

“You just flash your pass, and you’re on your way,” Reed said.

That’s the easy part. Harder is figuring out how to solve the puzzle of exactly where to go, for how long, with what connections, and how to get back. But don’t think of that as the hard part, Reed said. Think of it as exploration.

“See it as part of the adventure,” she said. “How is this all going to work, by bus? That’s an adventure in itself.

“But it’s not that hard,” she added. “Some of it relies on you talking to the bus driver.”

Vancouver to Stevenson

If you don’t require Oregon waterfalls, your car-free journey along the north shore of the Gorge starts with Gorge Translink, operated by Skamania County Transit. Unfortunately, the service is limited to weekdays and departs from the Fisher’s Landing Transit Center in east Vancouver a handful of times per day. (It stops at Washougal’s Park & Ride lot, too.) Regular fare — without the Gorge Pass — is $2 for adults, $1 for ages 12-17, and free for under 12.

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A half-hour ride gets you to the Cape Horn trailhead (aka Salmon Falls Park & Ride), leading to a classic Gorge loop hike. Take a few hours to do some or all of the 6.5-mile loop trail (partially closed through July 15 to protect nesting peregrine falcons), then catch the last westbound bus departing for Vancouver at 5:45 p.m.

Gorge Translink continues to North Bonneville, 15 minutes past Cape Horn. In addition to views of immense, historic Bonneville Dam, North Bonneville boasts the Fort Cascades pioneer site and Hamilton (aka Strawberry) Island, a bird sanctuary that offers easy strolling and fantastic views of the Gorge’s basalt walls. North Bonneville also boasts a free, 18-hole disc golf course. The last westbound bus leaves North Bonneville at 5:25 p.m.

Ambitious hikers, take note: The North Bonneville bus stop isn’t far from the Pacific Crest Trail. Hungry tourists, take note: It’s a quick bus ride from North Bonneville over the Bridge of the Gods to Cascade Locks, where restaurants and pubs await. The last Gorge Translink bus leaves Cascade Locks at 5:15 p.m. to cross back over the river and west to Vancouver.

Or, ride Gorge Translink all the way to downtown Stevenson.

“It’s a super cute downtown with amazing eateries, breweries, a beautiful waterfront walk,” Reed said. “You can follow the path to the fairgrounds and out to (The Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center), a world-class museum. You can do all this without a car.”

The last westbound bus leaves Stevenson for Vancouver at 5:03 p.m.

Oregon waterfalls

If you must have Oregon waterfalls by transit, you’ll need to get yourself into Oregon first, where you have four options:

  • The Columbia Gorge Express (aka the CAT bus, operated by Columbia Area Transit of Hood River) is a daily bus line that runs between Portland’s Gateway Transit Center (1250 N.E. 99th Ave.) and Hood River, with stops at Troutdale, Multnomah Falls and Cascade Locks. Columbia Gorge Express runs every three hours, but more departures may be coming this summer, Reed said. You can transfer to other transit at Cascade Locks and Hood River. Fares are the same as Skamania Transit: $2 for adults and $1 for kids.
  • Sasquatch Shuttle is a new, direct service to Multnomah Falls and the waterfall corridor. Parking and loading up are in Bridal Veil, within the waterfall corridor.

Sasquatch’s Multnomah Falls Express ($15) goes direct, every 30 minutes. The Waterfall Loop ($25-$35), which leaves every two hours, is a narrated greatest-hits tour of all the local sights (Multnomah and other falls, as well as the Crown Point Vista House) with 15-minute, nonhiking stops at each. (There are also Sasquatch Shuttles to downtown Troutdale and McMenamins Edgefield.)

Sasquatch Shuttle is pet friendly. Passengers need no additional reservations or tickets at Multnomah Falls.

  • Waterfall Shuttle, like Sasquatch, is a private service departing from a nearby parking lot, this one in Dodson, Ore. Your $15 ticket is valid for a round trip to Multnomah Falls any time of day. Shuttles leave every 15 minutes, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Waterfall Shuttle also offers a $79, three-hour Gorge-ous Sunset Waterfall Tour, letting photographers snap up the golden glow at several falls, as well as the Vista House.
  • Gray Line’s Waterfall Trolley offers a variety of open-air, narrated tours of the waterfall corridor. Climb aboard in Corbett (east of Troutdale) or shuttle to the trolley from a downtown Portland meeting point. Hop on and hop off at any of numerous stops along the way. The waterfall trolley is wheelchair accessible. Prices vary, starting at $24.

These transit and tourism agencies know that accessing the Gorge by transit can make a complicated outing even more complicated. Most of their websites include suggested itineraries, including nearby trailheads, other attractions (like museums, shopping, river walks), places to eat and drink and, crucially, timely transit connections.

Overwhelmed by all the possibilities? A good place to start all Columbia Gorge travel planning is www.readysetgorge.com.