PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – During a weekend in peak wildflower season – April to mid-June – it’s not uncommon to see cars parked along State Route 14 in Skamania County, Washington as hikers surge to the popular Dog Mountain Trailhead to observe the blossoms.
When the trailheads parking lot fills up, some people park up to a mile away on the shoulder of the highway, then walk along the narrow road to reach their destination.
Stanley Hinatsu, recreation staff officer for the U.S. Forest Service, said Forest Service and Skamania County officials have some safety concerns.
“We were also seeing some accidents occurring on SR-14 in that area where the trailhead is. So, of course that prompted the Forest Service… to figure out what the heck are we going to do about this?” he said.
The trailhead starts at a large gravel parking lot directly off of SR-14. Hinatsu said the Forest Service and county have made several attempts over the years to address congestion and overcrowding in the lot, but nothing’s solved the problems completely.
In the past, they laid fire hoses in the gravel lot to mark parking spots, limiting it to 70 cars. But when those spaces filled, people would still park along the side of the highway.
So, the Forest Service started to brainstorm a larger solution: something safer that could also accommodate the large crowds.
The U.S. Forest Service received federal funding to start drafting a congestion mitigation safety plan along SR-14 and began a feasibility study to determine where the best spot to move the Dog Mountain Trailhead would be. The feasibility study should be completed by late summer or fall of 2022.
Right now, the Forest Service said it appears the best spot for the new trailhead would be west of Grant Lake. This would place the trailhead farther inland, away from the highway, and would allow drivers to reach the trailhead by an access road.
“We obviously had to look at a place where the trail could connect to the existing trail pretty seamlessly. It would probably require another half-mile of connector trail from the trailhead to the main trail, so it doesn’t increase the length significantly,” Hinatsu explained.
Thinking ahead about the cost of this project, the U.S. Forest Service applied for funding from the Federal Highway Administration’s Federal Lands Access Program and the Great American Outdoors Act and was approved for both.
However, a couple more things need to be completed before shovels hit the dirt on the new parking area. Hinatsu said the Forest Service is still waiting to hear how much funding they’ll receive from the Federal Lands Access Program federal funding and aren’t sure yet if it will cover the entire project, which is estimated to cost close to $1 million. The Forest Service might need find additional funding to pay for this.
Hinatsu said when the feasibility study concludes in 2022, the U.S. Forest Service will need to begin a formal environmental analysis and go through the National Environmental Policy Act process before construction begins. This planning phase could take 2-3 years, meaning the construction project is still a few years away.
When construction does begin, Hinatsu doesn’t expect the Forest Service will need to close the trail completely to hikers.
“We know that this use likely isn’t going to go away and will probably increase as the Portland/Vancouver metropolitan area will continue to grow and population,” Hinatsu said. “So, we would ask visitors to just be patient as we try to sort through what is the most effective way to reduce congestion.”
He hopes the new trailhead will someday help guests avoid traffic jams, avoid parking a mile away from the trailhead, and ultimately improve the visitor experience.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the latest projects to be funded by the Great American Outdoors Act on June 6. It awarded $7.47 million to public lands in Washington state and a significant amount of that funding will go toward projects on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, including relocating the Dog Mountain Trailhead.
Editor’s note: A previously published version of this story stated that construction of the trailhead would cost $630,000 and planning for it would cost $1 million. The article has been corrected to state that the estimated cost of the project is close to $1 million. The U.S. Forest Service also initially told KOIN 6 News that the Collins Slide area was being considered as the location for the new trailhead, but later corrected themselves to say they’re top location choice now is west of Grant Lake.