Starting July 20th, bicycle riders will be required to have tickets to visit Multnomah Falls (UPDATED)

Posted by on July 14th, 2021 at 11:47 am

They’ll all need tickets starting July 20th.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

“I do not have a clue why they would require bikers to have a ticket, and I’ve shared my thoughts with them.”
— Arthur Babitz, Historic Columbia River Highway Advisory Committee chair

People who ride bicycles into the Columbia River Gorge are not part of the major congestion and parking problems that plague the popular destination; but now they’re caught up in one of the attempts to fix it.

Several readers contacted us after the U.S. Forest Service announced a new reservation and ticketing system for Multnomah Falls and its historic lodge last Friday (7/9). The new policy, which goes into effect July 20th, requires that nearly all visitors show up with a timed ticket. The new rules don’t apply to visitors under the age of two or to people who take transit.

But despite the potential of bicycle riders to help solve the safety, environmental and congestion problems in the Gorge — the new policy requires them to have tickets.

The new system is being implemented because too many people drive cars into the Gorge — especially the 1.2 million people who stop at Multnomah Falls each year. Agencies and organizations that manage land and roads along the popular falls just outside Portland have worked for years to tame traffic. But despite a relatively successful public transit shuttle, a planning effort by the Oregon Department of Transportation to encourage less driving, and pleas from advocates to leave cars at home, the chaos and congestion continues.

“The Timed Reservation Tickets are designed to reduce congestion and improve access to the site,” and are, “necessary to mitigate congestion and safety related issues at Exit 31 and on the Historic Columbia River Highway,” read a statement on the Recreation.gov ticket site (that has since been edited).

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“I’m hoping we can figure something out, maybe for next summer.”
— Karen Davis, USFS

Many USFS officials are on fire duty at the moment, but we did reach one staffer to help us understand why bicycle riders need a ticket. Karen Davis is a USFS public affairs officer for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. She acknowledged that the new policy isn’t ideal. “To me it makes more sense to reward a cyclist and say, ‘Of course you don’t need a ticket, because you didn’t take up a parking spot and this is all about parking’,” Davis shared in a phone call yesterday. “I’m hoping we can figure something out, maybe for next summer. But for this summer, even cyclists must get a ticket.”

Historic Columbia River Highway Advisory Committee Chair Arthur Babitz told BikePortland he was “surprised” to see the new policy. He said the committee discussed this idea several years ago but he wasn’t aware it would be implemented this summer. “I’m very supportive of the concept of limiting access so people can have a safe and enjoyable experience,” he shared with us via email yesterday. “I do not have a clue why they would require bikers to have a ticket, and I’ve shared my thoughts with them. I understand the USFS and ODOT consider this experimental, and sure don’t expect they got it perfect right out of the gate. I expect this program will evolve quickly.”

“If they want to reduce traffic congestion, shouldn’t they encourage cycling along with shuttle buses? They really missed an opportunity to encourage travel by bike.”
— Nate Martin, Portland resident

Babitz and other members of the HCRH Advisory Committee have pressed ODOT and the USFS for years to adopt stronger measures that would discourage driving in the Gorge. Reallocating lanes to bicycle riders, more transit shuttles, and other ideas have been floated. But so far state and federal officials have dragged their feet.

Portlaner Nate Martin said he appreciates the effort to reduce congestion at the falls. He shared in an email with BikePortland that he’s given up driving the waterfall route because of the crowds. “It was awful the last few times I tried to go anywhere by car,” Martin said. So he started biking instead and has bike-camped overnight at Ainsworth State Park. “I valued being able to stop at Multnomah Falls on the way home, and I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to do that anymore without figuring out what time I’m likely to arrive and having to buy a reservation ahead of time.”

“If they want to reduce traffic congestion, shouldn’t they encourage cycling along with shuttle buses?” Martin wonders. (He’s also confused as to whether or not he’ll be able to use the restrooms or concession stand if he’s just passing through on his bike.) “They’re moving in the right direction in managing vehicle traffic,” he continued, “But they really missed an opportunity to encourage travel by bike. Instead, they are actively discouraging cyclists from visiting the site.”

Tickets will be required between 9:00 am and 6:00 pm from July 20th to September 19th. They’ll be available 14 days in advance of the day of your arrival. Each person can reserve up to six tickets and there’s a $1 per ticket, non-refundable reservation fee. Tickets will not be available on-site and must be purchased at Recreation.gov.

Given the impressions of Babitz and Davis, and the way the policy emerged, it feels like this is a triage reaction to extremely crowded conditions. The USFS is likely open to feedback and we could see changes in the future — if not this summer, then certainly in 2022. You can reach USFS Public Affairs Officer Karen Davis at karen.a.davis@usda.gov or ODOT Columbia Gorge Scenic Area Coordinator Terra Lingley at terra.m.lingley@odot.state.or.us.

UPDATE, 7/20: (Thanks in large part because of this story!) The bike policy has been changed and clarified. Karen Davis with USFS now says all bicycle riders are welcome at the falls without a ticket. Just roll up to the entry point with your bike and you can stay as long as you want.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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Ted Timmons (Contributor)
Member

My first, second, and third thoughts are that it’s stupid, because people and cycles don’t contribute (much) to crowding. And it’s quite the disincentive.

On the other hand, by requiring a ticket, it prevents someone from ‘hacking the system’, dropping 40 people and 40 shabby bicycles off a quarter mile down the road so they don’t have to get tickets (and have them run out).

This has happened occasionally on the Mexico border over the past 15 years. Basically “rent” a bike to get through the border crossing much faster. Really helpful in places like San Diego, El Paso, Laredo, etc where the border is part of a daily commute.

https://www.borderreport.com/regions/texas/bicycling-from-mexico-into-south-texas-gaining-popularity/

D2
Guest
D2

I did actually see someone renting ebikes out the back of a van about 3 or 4 miles east of Multnomah falls a couple weeks ago.

Nate
Guest
Nate

There’s a company called Ebike Multnomah Falls near Corbett. It might have been them. Their website says that their bike rentals now come with a ticket to see the falls, so I wonder if they worked out a deal with the forest service.

Lowell
Guest
Lowell

If we take USFS public affairs officer Karen Davis at her word (“this is all about parking”) then the scheme you describe is a perfectly acceptable solution, not a problem.

cmh89
Guest
cmh89

Is the parking lot free still? I was always amazed that a major tourist trap near Portland wasn’t doing anything to generate revenue for maintaining our public lands.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

Yep! Absolutely insane. They are missing out on so much revenue (and potential demand management).

M. Haines
Guest
M. Haines

Pay for parking? Are you supporting a regressive fee cmh89?

Concordia Cyclist
Guest
Concordia Cyclist

Is there a way to means test for paying parking fees? Doesn’t the required costs alone of both owning a car and driving out there make the act of visiting itself “regressive”?

Seems like an odd thing to point out.

Granpa
Guest
Granpa

This is a spectacular waterfall beside the mighty Columbia River. with a historic lodge at its base, not The Mystery Spot or an alligator farm. Calling it a tourist trap belies real cynicism. FWIW I think bikes should be allowed free access

Douglas Kelso
Guest
Douglas Kelso

It’s not a tourist trap.

But you’re right about charging for parking. It’s the easiest and least costly path to congestion management.

Alan 1.0
Subscriber

Just in terms of physical crowd management, how do they separate people riding shuttle/transit from people arriving by car? Maybe they get a ticket when they board, or their bus pass is stamped, or…? I’m wondering how bike riders could be similarly managed.

Also, how are people on charter buses treated as far as tickets?

Brandon
Guest

Cheers to them for finally taking steps to mitigate the auto-disaster that historic HWY 30 has become… however, making cyclists get a ticket is counterproductive to their stated goals. Can I still ride through to Cascade Locks without a ticket?

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

What are they going to make you do – ride your bike out of there?

Steve
Guest
Steve

Maybe I have been spoiled over the years but I have always found Multnomah Falls way overrated. Many falls throughout the state are more interesting. As long as they are not “tolling” the HCRH, go after them tourist dollars.

Christian
Guest
Christian

I can’t find a clear answer to this: do I need a ticket now to stop there and fill a water bottle, use the bathroom and roll on? It seems like that may be the intent of the new policy, but I’m not certain.

Bikeninja
Guest
Bikeninja

Kind of Ironic that back in the old days before cell phones and the internet ( timed tickets would have been hard to implement then) my friends and I could go to Multnomah falls any time we wanted and there was never a crowd in the parking lot or on the trail. Now you have to make reservations online, bring your ticket and things are still crowded. Seems like Joseph Tainter’s theory of the “Collapse of Complex Civilizations,” is coming true. The population of the U.S. was not that much lower then, yet the crowds at attractions like this were many times smaller. Is the internet a solution, or did it just cause people to crowd around like moths to a flame. Maybe things just worked out better when they were simpler.

potato-man
Guest
potato-man

Between 1990 (before the internet…kind of) and now, Oregon picked up about 1.5 million people, most of whom are close enough to day trip the gorge. Things were certainly better in the ’90s, and the internet has messed up a lot of things, but I don’t think this is one of them. This is just a numbers problem, since we aren’t making more waterfalls.

Joseph E
Guest
Joseph E

So dumb. Instead of charging $1 a person, just charge $5 per car for parking in both lots, and prohibit parking along the shoulders of the historic highway. Problem solved, no tickets required. You could offer a $10 reserved parking pass or something if you want to guarantee that you can get a spot along the historic highway for example. But there’s no reason to prevent people from stopping by if the parking lot is not full.

Joseph E
Guest
Joseph E

I emailed the two contacts above, and got this response immediately from Karen Davis (Karen.A.Davis@usda.gov):

Hi there! Thanks for sending this email. We just got out of a coordination meeting and this topic came up. We agree that cyclists should not need to reserve a ticket! Wanted you to know we are working on a solution ASAP.

Thanks!
Karen

K'Tesh
Guest
K'Tesh

This is just stupid… To solve a problem, you go for the source of the problem. Bikes aren’t the problem, cars are. This has all the signs of something that is going to bite them in the ass.

Todd Boulanger
Guest

Yeah, this ‘bicyclist congestion charge’ seems so wrong on so many levels. At least it is a “per person” toll vs. how most state and NPS access fees are set up: per vehicle which heavily favours drivers of large vehicles vs. cyclists. The USFS truly are missing a congestion mitigation and congestion opportunity as others have pointed out: paid parking reservations / valet parking.

A question for the group: is a 60 minute pass long enough for cyclists to pedal through this area and see the falls? (It been too long since I have done it to remember.) Perhaps they will need to add a “bike time bonus’.

USFS: “A timed reservation ticket is a per person ticket to enter the site. All visitors to Multnomah Falls over the age of 2 will require a ticket. Bicyclists also require a ticket. You may reserve up to 6 tickets per day. Your ticket reservation does not guarantee you a parking space.”

Nate
Guest
Nate

The recreation.gov site says this under the Need to Know section: “You may stay longer than an hour, however if you leave after your time slot you will not be allowed to enter the site without a valid ticket for a subsequent times slot.”
So you can stay as long as you want. They’re only moderating entrance to the “site,” though I don’t know how much of the area they’re including in their definition of “site.”

Orig JF
Guest
Orig JF

What are they going to do if you park (bike or car) at another falls and hike to Multnomah Falls? Now all the other falls along historic HWY are busier!
Honestly, just charge $10 for two hour parking off HWY 84 and $15 for parking along the historic HWY and call it a day.

Bicycling Al
Guest
Bicycling Al

Similar silliness occurred at the Johnston Ridge Observatory near Mt. St. Helens years ago. I used to bike the Spirit Lake Highway up to the observatory now and again. Then they decided to expand the parking lot up there and started charging $8 “per family” and bicyclists were NOT exempt even though, clearly, I wasn’t going to use the new parking lot. That was quite a fee to take a break and fill up a water bottle! Glad I had the money or they wouldn’t let me in on the property. There’s very little potable water in the area and I planned the ride around filling up there. The observatory itself was free for YEARS but those who made the policy simply assumed that 100% of visitors DROVE there.

It’s just another example of bikes being invisible to those making decisions.

foobike
Guest
foobike

Hmm… I’ve done this stunning ride quite a few times on my own and never been charged at JRO, including last year – though last year admittedly was an anomaly as I believe the facilities were closed and the road up was gated on account of covid restrictions.

Maybe I haven’t ridden to JRO in normal operating mode (ie not during covid restrictions) since they instituted the fee? Or maybe I’ve gotten lucky that no one has bothered to charge me?

I typically mount an extra 2 bottle cages to my fork for this trip, it’s easy to go through a lot of water with all the climbing and as you said, the water situation ain’t so reliable (especially during a pandemic!).

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

There’s no pay booth. You just need to display a NW forest pass at the parking lot now. So I don’t know how they would even charge a bike now. Ride away.

Bicycling Al
Guest
Bicycling Al

There was no pay booth. They had park staff hanging out at the entrance from the parking lot collecting fees as people walked in. There were signs along the road up to the observatory about the fee.

It could have been one of those demo fees that the US Forest Service likes to test out here and there.

I’m glad to learn that it’s gone. Thanks

Matthew Moore
Guest

What is the fee for a ticket for those who drive their cars, or is it all the same? I cannot be bothered to make an account to see the ticket price. Also, their reasoning for the fee is not great; Why not just have people make reservations without a fee at all? And if cars and congestion is a problem, then charge for parking to encourage carpooling and transit use.

The reality is that while bicycling is better for everyone in terms of everything, it does seem that USFS is just concerned with capacity at the site. Considering this, I think it makes sense for everyone to pay their fair share, since the reality is that even bicyclists accrue costs just through use of facilities. Otherwise, this is, of course, absurd.

Nate
Guest
Nate

There’s just a $1 reservation fee for the ticket (and each person visiting needs a ticket unless they’re arriving via a shuttle), and that fee seems like it’s just going to recreation.gov. I don’t think the forest service is gaining any revenue from these ticket sales.

Matthew Moore
Guest

Well, according to their website, the falls attracts around 2 million visitors a year. I doubt it costed anywhere near than in additional time for someone to build the extra ticketing page and there’s not much to maintain there. I suppose a ticket booth will need to be constructed with yearly staffing, but those combined shouldn’t come close to even the first year revenue.

Personally, I just think that there needs to be more transparency and justification for the way things are handled, because an arbitrary cost of $1 sounds like just that. This goes beyond USFS.

Michael Mann
Guest
Michael Mann

The only reason I ever stop at the falls while riding is to grab a quick cup of coffee at the outdoor coffee stand. If I need a paid reservation for that now, that’s just dumb and of course I won’t do it. More likely I’ll just take my chances and assume no one’s going to ask me for my reservation. Personally, I’m all for closing the old highway to cars from Larch Mountain road to Dodson and creating an electric shuttle system like some of the crowded national parks do. If you really want to drive to the falls, take the freeway and park in that lot. Otherwise you would need to ride the shuttle. Or your bike of course.

Josh G
Guest
Josh G
Aaron
Guest
Aaron

I think that it’s important to note that (as far as I know) the only publicly accessible water in the Gorge is at Crown Point, Multnomah Falls, Ainsworth Park, and Bridge of the Gods

Mike Quigley
Guest
Mike Quigley

It’s too many cars containing too many people, everywhere. But nature is beginning to deal with the problem. The death rate from all sources is skyrocketing worldwide.

Kitty
Guest
Kitty

I think it’s a great idea. I used to live in Washington but moved to Oregon. I have never visited during the summer months because the parking is often full. I have visited several times in the fall and winter when it is not so busy. During my last fall stop I was very surprised to see bicycles chained to the fence and even to two of the light posts making visitors have to walk around them. the Bike rack was not full. So I sorry but I am for the tickets even for bicyclists. Their should be fines for chaining their bikes in the wrong areas just like a car would be ticketed.

Chris I
Guest
Chris I

So, collective punishment? That’s your solution?

Yes, they can ticket and even remove bikes that are parked illegally. Many people visiting the falls are inexperienced, which should be evident from the absolute mayhem in the parking lot every day during the summer.

Charging someone who rides a 20lb bike that takes up 2sqft of space, and someone who drives a 6,000lb vehicle that takes up 200sqft of space is not reasonable. The biggest issue at Multnomah Falls in the summer is that parking fills up, so they should be actively encouraging transportation options that free up space for parking. That would include shuttle bus riders, and cyclists.

Michael
Guest
Michael

Maybe the bike rack was was full at the time they parked.

Bicycling Al
Guest
Bicycling Al

Fun fact: Senator Jeff Merkley is Chairman of the subcommittee that funds the Forest Service and Department of Interior.

Douglas Kelso
Guest
Douglas Kelso

The new system is being implemented because too many people drive cars into the Gorge — especially the 1.2 million people who stop at Multnomah Falls each year.

I just looked up the Columbia Gorge Express. The ride costs $10 each way for a single ticket, so to take a family of four from Portland to Multnomah Falls and back will cost you $80. Put the same family of four into a car, and you pay $4 in total to enter the area. Of course you could bike out, if you’re willing to ride on the shoulder of the freeway (no thanks!) or take the steep, winding Historic Columbia River Highway with its narrow lanes and non-existent shoulders (also not at all appealing). And then you still pay $1 per person, same as driving.

This is a crappy incentive system if they are trying to address “too many people driving cars into the Gorge.” It’s a token effort that still incentivizes the behavior they theoretically want to discourage.

Better plan: charge $20 to park at Multnomah Falls. Subsidize the Columbia Gorge Express so it’s $3 per person round-trip; a family of four will spend $12 to take the bus instead of $20 to park. And use part of the parking revenue to help pay for a flat, off-street multi-use path along I-84 from Troutdale to Multnomah Falls, with a stop at Rooster Rock State Park. Build a big bike parking area at Multnomah Falls and let bikes park free.

Merlin
Guest
Merlin

I just read that bicycle riders do not need a permit if they stay with their bikes or their bicycle helmets.