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Portland’s Nearby Wilderness Areas Begin to Reopen

As of May 15, the Gifford Pinchot National Forest is back in business.

By Benjamin Tepler May 15, 2020

Mount St. Helens sits within the newly reopened Gifford Pinchot National Forest

Image: Shutterstock

On Friday, May 15, officials announced the reopening of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington, which includes Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, and stretches north to the border of Mount Rainier National Park. It’s the closest national forest to Portland to reopen since sweeping closures were put in place at the end of March to stem the spread of COVID-19 amongst outdoor enthusiasts. 

Most developed day-use and trailhead sites have reopened in Gifford Pinchot, along with essential forest roads 81, 83, and 90. Specific, congested areas will remain closed, including all campgrounds, Lower Falls recreation area, the Ape Caves, and Forest Road 8303 (Spirit Lake Memorial Highway) leading to Johnston Ridge Observatory. Primitive backcountry sites without facilities, though, will be open and accessible. 

Ape Cave Interpretive Site and Lower Falls Day Use sites are being renovated this summer, while all other remaining closures will be evaluated when the state moves into its Phase 2 as laid out by Washington Governor Jay Inslee. Campgrounds in the Gifford Pinchot will not be open in time for Memorial Day weekend, fellow compatriots.  

What about the other Portland-adjacent wild areas: the Mount Hood National Forest and Columbia River Gorge? No updates yet on Mount Hood’s territories, other than the news that ski areas have officially reopened, also as of May 15. Timberline reports that ski operations will be limited to chairlifts Stormin' Norman and Magic Mile, both of which offer access to beginner, intermediate and advanced trails. Wy’East Day Lodge will be open for grab-and-go food, repairs, retail and restrooms.

The Gorge, tentatively set to reopen in minimally two phases, is a whole other can of worms. Says Rachel Pawlitz, Public Information Officer for the Columbia River Gorge, “I want to clarify: we are not planning to use permits as of this moment. We are not even in a planning phase; we’re in an early discussion phase.”

What’s the holdup? For one, explains Pawlitz, the Gorge has to take into account two entirely different sets of orders and timelines from Governors Inslee in Washington and Kate Brown in Oregon. What she can tell us with some certainty, is that “higher density” sites will not be opening in the immediate future. She used the waterfall corridor (which includes Multnomah Falls), the Sandy River Delta, the Cape Horn trail, and Dog Mountain, as examples of sites that typically see a lot of foot traffic. It’ll take “creative solutions and partnership approaches” to get those sites up and running safely, Pawlitz says. One major dilemma: In recent years, the Gorge has been using shuttle buses to limit congestion at these tourist-clogged areas, which is more difficult given social distancing constraints. 

For less crowded sites (Pawlitz did not provide specifics), there is a light at the end of the tunnel. “Between the logistical and coordination sides of this puzzle, there are positive signs that some of these lesser-used sites might be opening in the coming weeks,” she says. “But we can’t make promises on dates quite yet.” Stay tuned for updates.

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