“While this highway was built for Model-Ts, its future is meant for cyclists, walkers, and hikers…”
— Barbara Roberts, former Oregon Governor
100 years ago today the State of Oregon dedicated the 73-mile Historic Columbia River Highway. It was a marvel of its time, the nation’s first Scenic Highway, and it was known simply as the “King of Roads.” Its 73-miles of curves and sweeping gorge views from Troutdale to The Dalles were an inspiration to engineers and explorers alike.
Then it was all but forgotten in the 1950s when Interstate 84 bullied its way through the gorge. The new interstate cut off sections of the old highway and it fell into disrepair. In 1987 the state legislature established the Historic Columbia River Highway Advisory Committee and work began in earnest to restore the highway to its former glory.
When it was rededicated today at a Centennial Celebration held at Multnomah Falls, there was one major difference this time around: Instead of automobiles marking the future, they now mark the past.
Concerns about congestion, traffic safety, and the preservation of the Gorge National Scenic Area have resulted in a new push for buses and bicycles — these are the vehicles that will define the Historic Highway’s next 100 years.
To make sure bicycles weren’t forgotten at this momentous historical occasion, about two dozen of us rode from Corbett to Multnomah Falls to join the festivities.
We rode to Vista House where we stopped to talk with volunteer docents dressed in period garb and then posed for a commemorative panorama photograph in front of Multnomah Falls Lodge. After the photo-op we stood and listened to the formal rededication ceremony that was held at the misty foot of the legendary waterfall. The event was emceed by none other than Sam Hill (an impersonator of course), the early 20th century businessman and leader of the Good Roads movement who cajoled and lobbied the State of Oregon to build the highway.
“Good roads are not just my passion,” Hill said with conviction, “They are my religion!”
We heard from various speakers and were serenaded by the Daughters of the American Revolution Chorus and Thomas Lauderdale who played a grand piano that had been brought in for the occasion.
The last speaker of the day was former Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski. And he surprised us all by sounding like a cycling advocate. He gave such a strong endorsement to biking in the gorge that I personally thanked him afterwards (and then asked for his speaking notes so I could make sure to get all his quotes right). Here are the salient passages:
“What I find most exciting in 2016 is not only the Historic Highway’s past, but its future as a Historic Highway and State Trail.
In 2016, one can ride a bike from Portland to Cascade Locks without being forced to the shoulder of Interstate 84… All but 10 miles of the Historic Highway remain to be connected. Two of those miles, between Lindsey and Starvation Creeks, will open this September. Three more miles between Wyeth and Lindsey Creek will open in 2018.
The final five miles of the State Trail have the greatest obstacles and the greatest costs. But when they are done, people from all over the world will again come here, this tikme with their bikes to ride all 73 miles from Portland to The Dalles, without having to venture onto I-84, representing one of the most unique, long-term and attractive cycling experiences in the United States!”
Kulongoski asked everyone at the ceremony to commit to getting those last five miles built in the next six years. That shouldn’t be too hard, seeing as how Samuel Lancaster built the original 73-miles of highway in just nine years. And then Kulongoski invited us all to an event in The Dalles on June 7th, 2022 where we’ll dedicate the fully restored highway and trail, “With cyclists from across the nation and around the world who will then join us for a ride to Troutdale.”
— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – firstname.lastname@example.org
Our work is supported by subscribers. Please become one today.
wouldn’t it be nice to have one or two car free days from the start of the historic highway, say Lewis and Clark SP to Cascade Locks, so that families with kids, as well as others new to touring could enjoy this road. I’m sure there are several folks who are in the “interested but concerned” category who worry about sharing a road with little or no shoulders, that’s often filled with tourists and local car traffic especially on the weekends. Drivers could still access popular spots like Angels Rest and Multnomah Falls from the freeway so it wouldn’t completely shut out them out. This would truly be a great way to mark this celebration.
I did the Gorge Ride last year between The Dalles and Hood River, and the highway traffic was very light. The waterfall section is definitely not “family friendly” with traffic and poor sight lines, not to mention absolutely no shoulders.
yes, the “waterfall section”, roughly between Wahkeena Falls to Ainsworth State Park (about 4 miles), is fairly crazy with traffic during the high season. It completely degrades the experience of walking or cycling the Historic Hwy., IMO.
Here’s a modest proposal: do what Zion, Grand Canyon, and other National Parks have done and close this portion of the road to private vehicles May through September, and run frequent free shuttle buses end to end (it should be pay for parking, though…) Yes, this would cost money to operate. Yes, additional auto parking would likely need to be provided at the portals. But just think how fabulous this would be for people walking and biking. This is a fantastic natural scenic resource, on par with the National Parks, and it’s in dire need of protection from automobiles.
I would so do this ride if it could be done car-free!! Add my vote, if votes are needed!
I don’t know if he still does, but a few years ago when I was at PSU, Governor Kulongoski would bike to campus on days when he was teaching. Was always nice to see an elected official (even a retired one) who used alternative methods of transportation. It means that they have a better perspective on tranportation issues.
Great to see a safer way to experience the Gorge.
Dang, looking good Jess Horning!
All things being equal I plan on being at The Dalles on June 7th, 2022. I know that it’s a long way off but a couple of my buddies are urging me on. It’s going to be a great occasion – can’t let them or myself down.
Thanks for the great coverage. Wish I were there. My Virtual tour is NOT like being there!
Great article and pics! Thanks for all you for the cycling community!
Fantastic article and photos. Gov. Ted has a great idea. Let’s get those last 5 miles built! Extending it east to at least Pendlton should be the next step forward enroute to extending it all the way to the Idaho border. A National Bike Route designation would be the next step thereafter.
The Historic Highway is great, it’s just a shame it’s consistently clogged with motor vehicles waiting to park at the various waterfalls. It would be better to have a bikeway the entire way, rather than “we’ll it’s better than the I-84 shoulder!”
I suppose I don’t understand the fanfare around the highway for bikes. The state trail portion where cars are banned look fantastic. But the vast majority of the route is still shared with motor vehicles.
I’m also confused. What makes this road particularly bike friendly?
Although it seems nuts to you and me, there are enough people in the world who love epic views enough to deal with heavy traffic on the Oregon Coast Bike Route in non-negligible numbers every summer. I imagine people like them are the intended audience for this route. It may or may not be a good investment on an out-of-state tourist dollars and in-state tourist happiness basis.
I rode this last summer and said “Never again” personally due the heavy car traffic on the Historic Highway section. Maybe someday the shuttle will go a few miles past Multnomah Falls to the Elowah Falls parking lot and the start of the almost-completely-car-free section, then it would seem like a potentially good option for people who don’t like mixing with heavy auto traffic (but are still willing to deal with hills and being near to I-84). Elowah Falls has been “discovered” in the past few years and the parking situation is getting fairly crazy on weekends, so I could see the powers that be justifying this on the basis of parking.
I’ve ridden to, or almost to, Cascade Locks 3 or 4 times. The last time was last summer on a day when I mistakenly thought the road wouldn’t be too crowded. I bailed at Bridal Veil Falls and called for my wife to come pick me up because it wasn’t safe and it wasn’t fun. Cars definitely didn’t feel like a thing of the past that day.
Despite this experience, a couple of the other times I managed to hit it right and it was an awesome ride. The ~mile descent after Vista House is one of my favorite sections anywhere! I think the key is to go fairly early in the day mid-week, and especially during the shoulder months on one of those great weather days. I’ll definitely ride it again (can’t wait for 2022!) but will be more careful in my planning in the future. A car-free day would be out of this world.
At least post and enforce a 20 mph speed limit in the shared portions.
Thank you for all your hard work, Jeannette Kloos!