When Samuel Lancaster and Samuel Hill first broke ground on the Columbia River Highway in 1913, they could have easily designed and constructed the roadway at water level, but instead aimed their sights much, much higher. Lancaster – an engineer and landscape architect – utilized the latest cliff-face highway-building techniques, in a bold attempt to give drivers the very best views of Oregon’s breathtaking Columbia River Gorge.
“On starting the surveys, our first business was to find the beauty spots, or those points where the most beautiful things along the line might be seen in the best advantage, and locate the road in such a way as to reach them,” Lancaster wrote.
Hill – a lawyer and entrepreneur – began promoting what he branded “The King of Roads”, the first scenic highway in America, to tourists around the world. Completed in 1922, the meandering, 73-mile roadway between Troutdale and The Dalles quickly became a victim of its own success. The huge number of sightseers hoping to take the slow, scenic route clashed with commuters racing through as quickly as possible, causing congestion, conflict, and deteriorating road conditions.
Adapting for more active modes of transportation
By the late 1930s, construction began on Interstate 84, a parallel four-lane, waterfront expressway that would connect Portland, Oregon with Echo, Utah. As a result, entire segments of the worsening and redundant Columbia River Highway were abandoned by the Oregon State Highway Department, while a few spots were maintained to allow tourist access to scenic outlooks, waterfalls, and other points of interest.
It took another 50 years for public interest to grow in that (almost) forgotten piece of Oregon motoring history, when the State started studying the feasibility of restoring and reclaiming it for other, more active modes of transportation. Piece by piece, officials scraped together enough funding to research, redesign, and retrofit parts of the historic highway for walking, running, and cycling, including a glorious, 4.5-mile stretch of car-free trail between Hood River and Mosier, that opened in July 2000.
“The trail immediately floored us”
When our family booked a four-day trip to Northern Oregon in late September, our friend and Bikabout Founder Megan Ramey immediately put the recreational trail at the top of our “to do” list. Having recently relocated her own family from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and now operating not one, but two short-term rental suites out of her home, she admits it wasn’t even on her radar until after they were up and running.
“The trail immediately floored us,” she explains. “We've never been able to bike on smooth pavement under cliffs, through tunnels, and past scenic gorge overlooks without a car in sight. It reminded us of a mix of biking on Rockefeller's Carriage Roads, and driving through ‘peek-a-boo’ tunnels in Zion and Glacier National Parks.”
As we pedaled along at a leisurely pace on the smooth asphalt that Friday evening – four adults, three kids, a BBQ, a few bottles of beer, and a pug perched in her front basket – Ramey unveiled the long-term plan for the trail. In the coming years, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) were hoping transform it from a series of day trips into an international destination – outlined in a series of six short films produced by The Path Less Pedaled – much like Hill and Lancaster imagined over a century ago.
“73-miles of scenic, car-free bliss”
“We envision it as 73-miles of scenic, car-free bliss – comparable to the Danube – with cycle tracks connecting through the towns, and transit service to the Amtrak station,” Ramey suggests, highlighting the potential to link up customers with local hotels, craft cider and beer establishments, coffee roasters, and restaurants. “The closest thing we've seen here in America is the Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile trail stretching from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Cumberland, Maryland, which boasts separated infrastructure in the towns, making it 8-to-80-year-old friendly.”
In the meantime, Ramey can't wait to start advocating for the trail, pushing for connections to the nearby Amtrak station, and shuttling options for one-way trips, to help make her long-term vision a reality. But until it reaches that point, attracting “the other 99%” of cyclists, it's not a destination Bikabout will actively promote.
However, she’s already dreaming about how she can build her business around such a world-class attraction: “We'd very much like to open a boutique bike hostel catering to people using the trail,” she reveals. “Nothing would make us smile more than greeting a family of four or an elderly couple at the door who want to ride it.”
Businesses embracing bicycle tourism
“The communities are really excited about this project,” she declares. Of the 73-mile historic highway, just ten miles remain abandoned and inaccessible to walkers, joggers, and cyclists. Five of those miles have been funded, designed, and await construction in the next few years. The final five miles are currently awaiting the outcome of a $30-million grant application with the Federal Lands Access Program.
“Local businesses are our biggest advocates right now,” she recognizes. “They have really embraced bicycle tourism.” This includes the establishment of “Gorge Hub Areas” in each of the half dozen towns along the route, which offer washrooms, way finding, and fix-it stations. “The idea is to encourage cyclists to begin their journey in these communities,” she divulges, ”And then stop for refreshments along the way.”
“Travel Oregon have been an amazing partner”
Stallman also acknowledges the trail wouldn’t be possible without the steadfast support of the state tourism board: “Travel Oregon have been an amazing partner. They’ve been really supportive of our project, and of bicycle tourism in general.”
In addition to their ongoing Bike Friendly Business Program, Travel Oregon named the Historic Columbia Highway Trail the number one outdoor recreation priority in the state. They even financed an economic impact forecast, which estimated the completed trail would inject a whopping $6.3 million per year to the local economy.
Travel Oregon already estimates bicycle travelers spend an astonishing $400 million annually across the state; that’s approximately $1.1 million each and every day.
“Its future is meant for cyclists, walkers, and hikers”
Earlier this summer, authorities marked the original scenic highway’s centenary with a series of celebrations at key points along the route. At one of those events, Former State Governors Barbara Roberts and Ted Kulongoski gathered at the foot of Multnomah Falls to share their thoughts on the past, present, and future of the trail.
“While this highway was built for Model-Ts, its future is meant for cyclists, walkers, and hikers,” said Roberts enthusiastically. Shortly thereafter, Kulongoski challenged everyone at the ceremony to commit to finishing the trail by the 100th anniversary of the completion of the highway’s final segment: on June 7th, 2022. We’ve marked that exact date on our calendars, and hope to be there for the big ribbon cutting.
For our full collection of photos of the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, please see this Flickr gallery.