16 Ways to Help in the Columbia Gorge

Laura O. Foster
Sep 18, 2017 · 15 min read

In a 1-minute read per organization, learn what 16 Gorge nonprofits do, why they’re awesome and how you can get involved.

Grouped by focus are 1) Conservation/Preservation/Advocacy Groups; 2) Trailkeepers and Builders; 3) First Responders

If you play in the Gorge, you may or may not know that many wild areas have been protected only since 1986; they’re places local towns can no longer develop (and earn tax revenue from). The unspoken contract between visitor and these hosting towns is that we visitors give back, either with dollars: spending the night, eating a meal, buying a gift, buying a sweater or pair of shoes. In these towns are also the folks who rescue us when we fall, get lost or have a medical problem.

The other way to give back is to support, financially or with your time, these great groups and the work they do. Pay it forward and get involved. This article also lives on OutdoorProject.com, where I published it 9.13.2017.

Conservation/Preservation/Advocacy Groups

Columbia Gorge Refuge Stewards

This all-volunteer nonprofit works at three Gorge wildlife refuges, all in Washington: Steigerwald Lake (in Washougal), Pierce (west of North Bonneville) and Franz Lake (west of Skamania). The Stewards help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with restoration work, education and outreach. The sole employee works as a volunteer coordinator.

Why they’re awesome
These refuges are some of the last wetlands in the Gorge. The Stewards enhance refuge habitat for wildlife and make it possible for humans to experience them.

Fun to know
Pierce NWR was given to the Wildlife Service in 1983 by Lena Pierce who wanted to preserve the land for Canada geese. As if they need help. But her foresight is a gift to the rest of us and for other bird species. This former ranch is not open to the public, except for a price: your time. If you can organize a group of volunteers, email volunteer coordinator Jared Strawderman and schedule a time to meet at Pierce for invasive species removal.

Support / Get involved
Come out to Steigerwald NWR for frequent guided bat or bird walks or habitat restoration work. See the calendar for dates. Receive the monthly newsletter by emailing volunteer@refugestewards.org. Volunteer : cutting blackberry, planting native species, being a docent for school groups, working in their plant nursery, doing biological surveys. Follow the Stewards on Facebook.

Columbia Land Trust

CLT has conserved and enhanced 332 acres at seven sites in the Columbia Gorge and works with partner agencies on conservation goals at these sites. Its work covers a wider area than the Gorge: from The Dalles to the Pacific, with 13,760 acres protected in that larger area.

Why they’re awesome
CLT is working to restore recreational access on the Hood River at the former Powerdale Dam site, among many other projects.

Fun to know
The magnificent yellow balsamroot in the Gorge takes 10 years to grow from seed to flower. CLT’s Four Sisters property is a seed nursery for these iconic Gorge flowers. Seeds are sown at places once grazed by cattle or occupied by commercial sites.

Its Pierce Island — at the base of Beacon Rock — was once considered as a possible dumpsite for dredge spoils. Now it’s a protected wildlife oasis.

Support / Get involved
Donate. You’ll support purchases of land or easements to protect high-habitat-value sites, management plans for each property, and the actual restoration work on lands under management. Volunteer to be on the Action Team, with projects ranging from office work to planting native plants, to burning slash at conserved lands. Follow CLT on Facebook.

Columbia Riverkeeper

Based in Hood River, this public-interest group works to protect and restore the Columbia River’s water quality and life connected to it, along its 1,200-mile length. It monitors and stops special interests that aim to create loopholes in environmental laws like the Clean Water Act.

Why they’re awesome
When the government refuses to enforce environmental laws, Riverkeeper believes in citizen enforcement to stop harmful pollution and habitat destruction.

Fun to know
Swimming in the Columbia within the Gorge is an elemental experience; use the Swim Guide for Columbia River Sites to find great Gorge swimming beaches.

Support / Get involved
Become a member. Volunteer at the annual river cleanup — Love Your Columbia. Become one of the 150+ trained volunteers who monitor water quality in key salmon habitats. Join the Adopt-a-River program: a one-year commitment to adopt a section of the Columbia or tributaries, visiting four times to pick up trash and document conditions; you’ll also learn how to identify and respond to pollution and habitat threats. Follow CR on Facebook.

Friends of Multnomah Falls

This nonprofit, all-volunteer organization based in Bridal Veil, Oregon began in 1994 when the Forest Service opened the visitor center at the falls. Along with the Forest Service, Friends of Multnomah Falls staffs the visitor center.

Why they’re awesome
Four million people visit Multnomah Falls every year. And do they have questions. Friends are the people with answers. Volunteers receive extensive training on Gorge history and sites, including an annual interpretive bus tour.

Fun to know
If you volunteer at the visitor center at least 16 hours each year, you’ll receive a free Northwest Forest Pass from the U.S. Forest Service.

Support / Get involved
Become a member: You’ll support the volunteer training and other costs — like new chairs in the visitor center for volunteers, or a new flagpole at Multnomah Falls Lodge. Become a Gorge interpreter yourself. Just about every language in the world is heard at Multnomah Falls, Oregon’s most visited attraction. You could be the one who helps make the visit even better. Follow Friends on Facebook.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge

In 1980, I-205 and its bridge between Oregon and Washington were coming — creating a quicker route into and out of Portland from lands to the east. A group of citizens became concerned that urban sprawl would consume the Columbia Gorge’s most spectacular landscapes. Led by Portlander Nancy Russell, the group became Friends of the Columbia Gorge. It led the efforts to secure federal legislation to protect the Gorge.

In 1986, Friends and its partners succeeded: President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act, putting in place protections of the Gorge’s natural areas in six counties and two states.

Today, Friends has 6000+ members, and the Gorge is the nation’s most visited National Scenic Area. Friends is the only nonprofit dedicated entirely to protecting the entire Gorge.

Why they’re awesome
1. Friends works with government agencies — like the U.S. Forest Service — and other groups to bring private land into public ownership — 41,000+ acres so far.

2. It offers 100 free interpretive hikes in the Gorge each year, on topics ranging from wildflowers to history.

3. Friends are watchdogs, to ensure development in and uses of the Gorge (like oil and coal transport by rail) adhere to protections put in place by the National Scenic Area Act; they will sue if they have to, and frequently win.

4. They support Gorge businesses to promote not just the health of the Gorge’s natural areas but also the economic health of its towns.

Fun to know
Since 2011, Friends has been working to create, with partners throughout the Gorge, a 200-mile hiking loop connecting Gorge towns, vineyards and inns to its trails, for a European-style trekking experience. Hike all day, sleep in a warm bed at night!

If you become a volunteer, you get a free pass to the Columbia Sportswear Employee Store.

Support / Get involved
Become a member, or better yet, a Best Friend (a monthly giver). Stay updated via e-newsletters for events, hikes or alerts to take action on threats to the Gorge. Volunteer: pull invasive plants, maintain trails, lead a hike, help in the office, table an event, or participate in a hearing. Go on a guided hike. Give to the Preserve the Wonder campaign — to purchase and preserve 420 acres in seven Washington parcels — places with extraordinary views, high quality wildlife habitats and superb recreational opportunities. In September 2017, $4 million had been raised toward the $5.5 million goal. Follow Friends’ work and events on Facebook.

Friends of Vista House

This nonprofit established in 1982 works with Oregon State Parks at Vista House, the century-old Art Nouveau visitor center atop Crown Point in the Columbia Gorge.

Why they’re awesome
Friends of Vista House volunteers answer questions from one million visitors each year. They can tell you about the Gorge’s geology, flora, fauna, the Historic Columbia River Highway, and the spectacular, octagonal building itself.

Fun to know
In 1994, Oregon State Parks began plans for a much-needed restoration of Vista House. So beloved is this place that a public fundraising campaign to restore the interior, slated to run two years, reached its goal in one year.

Vista House has the best restrooms in the Gorge: vintage fixtures and lots of marble.

Volunteers get free trips on the sternwheeler Columbia Gorge and on the Mt. Hood Railroad.

Support / Get involved
Become a member. Your support pays for annual training events for volunteers, and for outreach programs at schools and regional heritage events. Become an interpretive guide at Vista House, answering visitors’ questions. Follow Friends on Facebook.

Trailkeepers and builders

Bonneville Trails Foundation

This small nonprofit has a big goal, and its volunteers have the experience and local networks to reach it. Centered in North Bonneville, Washington, at the scenic point where the Gorge pinches down to a narrow channel, BTF aims to connect North Bonneville’s existing 12 miles of trails to trails in surrounding state parks, Forest Service land, National Wildlife Refuge lands, and nearby towns.

Why it’s awesome
In 2016, a major trail link was lost when nearby Bonneville Hot Springs changed hands and its property became off limits to hikers. BTF is working to create a new link between it and the Pacific Crest Trail, and to trails up Table Mountain.

It’s also working on a new Beacon-Bonneville-Stevenson Connect Trail with Friends of the Columbia Gorge as part of the Gorge Towns to Trails network. This will be the first hiking/biking connection between North Bonneville and Beacon Rock State Park to the west, and Stevenson, Washington to the east, with links to Oregon via the Bridge of the Gods.

Fun to know
North Bonneville’s existing trails are flat, paved, and great to bike. They’re home to a resident Bigfoot population.

Support / Get involved
Learn more about BTF projects, or contact BigfootTrails@outlook.com to make a donation or get involved. Keep in touch via Facebook.

Cape Horn Conservancy

Cape Horn Conservancy is an all-volunteer group that maintains and improves Washington’s Cape Horn Trail, east of Washougal in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. Its partners are the U.S. Forest Service, Washington Trails Association, and Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

Why it’s awesome
Cape Horn is akin to Oregon’s Crown Point: a spectacular clifftop threaded with waterfalls. Views into the Gorge from the top are heart-lifting. And it was destined to become a high-end subdivision. Thanks to efforts (1980s) by Nancy Russell of Friends of the Columbia Gorge, that didn’t happen. Read the story here. Today it’s one of the premier Gorge hikes, one to show to out-of-towners.

CHC and its partners have built overlooks along the trail, highway underpasses, and trail reroutes. They’ve turned a network of social trails (some dangerous) into a premier, well-maintained 7.7-mile hiking loop.

Fun to know
The Cape Horn Trail will eventually be part of a Washougal to Stevenson trail –a long link in the Gorge Towns to Trails vision.

The Nancy Russell Overlook on the trail occupies a viewpoint where a large private home sat. The house was purchased and dismantled. Cape Horn Conservancy created the overlook, with stonework similar to the best of our national parks.

Support / Get involved
Become a member; funds go for trail maintenance tools and materials, and publication of maps and other educational materials. Join a work party. Hike the Cape Horn Trail. Follow CHC on Facebook.

Friends of the Historic Columbia River Highway

This all-volunteer organization makes a big difference in the continuing restoration of Oregon’s beloved Historic Columbia River Highway. Founded by Jeanette Kloos and others in 2006, FHCRH was started the year she retired from ODOT. There, she’d worked on restoring the century-old highway — parts of which had been destroyed when I-84 went in.

Her savvy on knowing whom to lobby and how to get projects done makes this small organization an effective force in expanding the Gorge’s recreational opportunities.

Why Friends are awesome
No paid staff: the office is at the founder’s desk. With this tiny overhead, FHCRH has paid for:

· feasibility studies for improvements at Mitchell Point, site of the famous tunnels destroyed when I-84 went in

· repairs to the highway’s historic rock walls damaged by rockfall and roadbed from plant roots

· a stone gateway monument at Chenoweth Creek in The Dalles and historic medallions along the highway

· lobbying: Jeannette travels to Washington, D.C., annually to update the Oregon Congressional delegation on the State Trail’s progress and future projects. Their familiarity with the project helps ensure continued federal funding.

· annual events: a summer bike ride and vintage car ride, both on the old highway

Fun to know
Today, if you want to bike from Troutdale to The Dalles — 73 miles of some of the planet’s most stunning scenery — you’d have to bike on I-84 for 8.8 miles in sections between Wyeth and Hood River. Not recommended!

FHCRH’s goal, along with ODOT, is a continuous bike route the length of the National Scenic Area, from Troutdale to The Dalles by 2022 — the 100th anniversary of the Historic Highway’s completion. “Continuous” means biking the two-lane Historic Columbia River Highway, the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail (the bike/ped only sections of the old highway alignment) or quiet county roads.

FHCRH has taken the lead, with partners ODOT and OPRD, on the HCRH State Trail Wayfinding Signs project. At an estimated $83,500, it’s FHCRH’s largest ever project.

Support / Get involved
Make a tax-deductible contribution to help with future projects leading to the goal of a continuous restored highway. Volunteer at work parties in spring and summer — pulling invasive weeds, painting benches, etc. Bike the highway in the annual Gorge Ride, Friends’ biggest fundraiser. In 2017, 352 bicyclists rode from The Dalles to Hood River and back. Follow ODOT’s continuing work and current projects on its Historic Columbia River Highway page. Follow Friends on Facebook.

Klickitat Trail Conservancy

With Washington State Parks and the U.S. Forest Service, KTC preserves and promotes public use of Washington’s Klickitat Trail, a former railroad alignment running north from Lyle in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.

For its lower half, the trail follows the Klickitat River upstream and then continues through remote Swale Canyon.

Why it’s awesome
After the rail line was abandoned in 1992, the right of way was obtained by the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Despite local opposition, a group of Klickitat County residents formed KTC in 2003 to promote public use of the right of way.

Volunteers maintain trails, build decks on trestles, build info kiosks, install bollards, signs, and otherwise make the trail enjoyable for the rest of us.

Fun to know
A KTC founder and Klickitat, Washington resident, Irvin Mitchell, donated his 2.5 acres, with a sandy beach on the river in 2015, shortly before he died. Irvin was a philanthropist, tree-planter, outdoor enthusiast, and “collector.” Before his property could be opened to the public (KTC is deeding it, after cleanup, to Washington State Parks), 100 tires and 35 tons of metal had to be removed.

Support / Get involved
Become a member. Your contribution helps fund portable toilets at trailheads, new gates and fences, trail maintenance and communications with members. Ask to be added to the email list. Go on springtime outings led by KTC members. Follow KTC on Facebook.

Trailkeepers of Oregon

All volunteer TKO, founded in 2007, is one of the go-to sites every local hiker consults. Its community of 9,000 hikers shares experiences in an extremely useful online hiking guide to Oregon and southern Washington trails.

Why it’s awesome
TKO also builds new trails, maintains existing ones, and restores abandoned trails. In 2016, volunteers worked on 45 trail stewardship projects. In the first nine months of 2107, they worked on 55 projects.

TKO also advocates for hikers’ interests to government agencies, elected officials and other organizations; it raises funds to build trails of all accessibility levels, has a five- year (2015–2020) strategic plan for state trails, and works to educate the public on trail stewardship and hiking benefits.

Equity is also part of its mission: making trails available to all Oregon communities served by public agencies; it believes it is our right as Oregonians to have safe, healthful access to our public lands.

Fun to know
Oregon Hikers Field Guide has maps, trail descriptions and photos updated often by members. The Oregon Hikers Forum (aka oregonhikers.org) is where hikers share trip reports.

Volunteers restored the trail at washed-out Eliot Crossing on Mt. Hood’s Timberline Trail in 2017, reopening the full circumnavigation of the mountain.

Support / Get involved
Become a member, to support TKO’s trail-building, advocacy, and operation of the Oregon Hikers Field Guide and Oregon Hikers Forum. Volunteer on the trail: TKO will train and certify you to do trail work safely. See current stewardship projects. Or contact TKO’s Volunteer Coordinator. Sign up for TKO’s email list to get notice of upcoming events. Follow TKO on Facebook.

Washington Trails Association

Since 1966 WTA has promoted Washington hiking: trail maintenance, outings, education and advocacy. It’s a statewide organization, with one staff member focused on Southwest Washington, including the Columbia Gorge.

Why it’s awesome
You can sign up for a Volunteer Vacation, a week in the wilderness working on trail projects. WTA has Youth Volunteer Vacations too — for ages 14 to 18. In light of September 2017’s Eagle Creek fire, started by teens tossing fireworks off cliffs, this program seems especially wonderful: scholarships pay for kids who could not afford the $225 fee. The more time kids spend in the woods…the more they value them.

Fun to know
Search “Southwest Washington” in its online hiking guide for an overview of Gorge hikes (including the Oregon side).

Support / Get involves

Join WTA. Join a trail work party — a one-day event. Kids 10 and older are welcome and encouraged. Take a Volunteer Vacation working on trails for a week. Follow WTA on Facebook.

First Responders

Hood River County Search and Rescue

An operation of the Sheriff’s Office, this was one of the first SAR teams in the Pacific Northwest. It often teams with Crag Rats and local fire departments.

Why they’re awesome
Rescues range from the Columbia River’s waters and canyons to the glaciated slopes of Mt. Hood. This SAR is one of the only SAR groups in the lower 48 states trained to use Super Cub aircraft to find injured or missing climbers and hikers.

Eagle Creek, in the Gorge, is unfortunately well known to HR County SAR. With increasing numbers of visitors, rescues in its canyon have increased. Between 2013 and 2016 it handled 60 SAR call-outs in Eagle Creek. In 2017, HR County SAR brought to safety (after an overnight on the trail) 153 people trapped between two fires along Eagle Creek.

Support / Get involved
To support their work, make checks to Hood River County Search and Rescue and send to 309 State Street, Hood River, OR 97031. In the immediate wake of the September 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, the county has received many requests to volunteer, and is at capacity. In the future to volunteer, contact the Hood River County Sheriff’s Office.

Hood River Crag Rats

Founded in 1926, the all-volunteer Crag Rats is America’s oldest search and rescue operation, focusing on Mt. Hood and the Columbia Gorge.

Why they’re awesome
The Crag Rats rescue 30 people per year, on average, in every season. They’re certified for technical rock and avalanche rescues.

Fun to know
Trainings and meetings are at Mt. Hood’s oldest structure, Cloud Cap Inn, built in 1889 at the 6,000-foot level. If you become a Crag Rat, you get to wear their signature shirt: black and white checks.

Support / Get involved
Donate via PayPal or a check (send to P.O. Box 1159, Hood River, OR 97031) to help fund equipment purchases, train new volunteers and maintain Mountain Rescue Association certification for existing volunteers. Rent the Crag Rat Cabin, a day-use lodge atop a knob overlooking the spectacular Hood River Valley. Rental proceeds support operations. Become a volunteer rescuer; learn what it takes on Crag Rats’ membership page. Follow Crag Rats’ work and events on Facebook.

Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue

This is an all-volunteer organization. Since 1960 it has trained volunteers to become certified search and rescue heroes who search for lost hikers, children, hunters, skiers, and people suffering from dementia.

Why they’re awesome
Volunteers have to purchase their own field equipment. Many are young — high-school-aged kids who dedicate free time to training so they can save lives.

In 2017, SAR volunteers graduated from the nine-month training program and became State-Certified Searchers. The group started at 88 people. Hundreds of hours of time training, on missions, in the cold and wet of the Gorge and elsewhere winnowed the class to 41 tough graduates.

Support / Get involved
Donate. Your contribution helps fund equipment purchases like radios and GPS units, and trainings. Enroll in the Training Program. Training consists of weekly classroom meetings and one weekend/month field training.

Skamania County

On the rugged north side of the Gorge, encompassing North Bonneville, Stevenson, Carson and the peaks behind them, the county relies on many local SAR groups such as:

Wind River Search and Rescue: all volunteer back-country SAR in Skamania County begun in 1993. It trains volunteers; the majority of its calls entail technical rope rescues of hikers and hunters off cliffs and mountains and from caves and lava tubes.

Volcano Rescue Team: mountain-related incidents on/near Mt. St. Helens. It trains volunteers.

Silver Star SAR. For 50 years, this all-volunteer group based in Washougal, Washington has provided wilderness SAR and more.

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