COLUMBIA GORGE, Ore. -- The off-trail hike into Oneonta Gorge has long been an iconic experience in the Columbia River Gorge.
The moss-draped canyon east of Portland features high, vertical walls and a 100-foot waterfall only accessible by hiking upstream within the river.
But sharply increasing crowds at Oneonta during recent summers — numbering in the hundreds on weekends — has the U.S. Forest Service concerned about the impact to the gorge’s ecosystem.
It’s yet another case of a famous Oregon landmark being “loved to death.”
“It’s a place that’s been popular for many years, but this is the most crowded I’ve ever seen it,” Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area recreation staff officer Stan Hinatsu said. “It has reached the point where we’re very concerned about the impact caused by the number of visitors.”
Hinatsu said the canyon’s riparian vegetation — its moss and plants — have been damaged by visitors. He also said that sediment stirred up could have a negative impact on fish.
“This gorge is a unique botanical place, with lots of mosses and plants growing in that damp environment,” Hinatsu said. “There's also the issue of water quality.”
The Forest Service is considering a range of options, but Hinatsu said it’s still an active discussion, and no decisions have been made.
“We’ve been thinking about how we could mitigate impact in the canyon but still offer this unique opportunity,” Hinatsu said. “We haven’t made a decision yet, but suffice to say we are concerned about the level of use.”
For those still interested in the journey, Hinatsu suggested starting early in the morning. The gorge is not safe during the rainy season, as the river level gets very high. He encouraged people to follow Leave No Trace principles.
The issues at Oneonta are shared by many nearby trails in the western half of the Columbia Gorge, particularly between Bridal Veil Falls and Horsetail Falls along the Historic Columbia River Highway.
The Forest Service is launching a new campaign called Ready, Set, Gorge that seeks to mitigate the heaviest use and parking problems. Suggestions include arriving before 10 a.m., carpooling or taking the Gorge's transit system to trailheads. Forest Service officials encouraged visitors to explore less-discovered, equally beautiful trails and picnic areas in the eastern Gorge or Washington side.
Officials also emphasized staying on official trails, and not following "user trails." Last week, two hikers followed a user trail up a rockslide, got trapped, and had to be rescued.
“Official trails are carefully maintained with the hiker’s safety in mind, and by contrast ‘user’ created side trails are much more likely to have unexpected hazards and drop-offs,” Hinatsu said in a press release. “A good rule of thumb is that if it looks like an unofficial side trail, it probably is.
Checking our website beforehand and bringing a map can help you confirm which trails are officially maintained.”
Zach Urness has been an outdoors writer, photographer and videographer in Oregon for eight years. He is the author of the book “Hiking Southern Oregon” and can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Zach Urness or @ZachsORoutdoors on Twitter.