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

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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