Loving the falls to death?
Huge crowds of tourists and weekend adventures crammed along the trail leading up to the base of roaring Multnomah Falls is a common sight at one of Oregon's most popular destinations — at least for those lucky enough to find a parking spot.
The waterfall is 620 feet tall, with two drops — making it the tallest one in Oregon and the second tallest year-round waterfall in the United States, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The Columbia River Gorge waterfall originates from underground springs from Larch Mountain, augmented by spring runoff from mountain snowpacks. Multnomah Falls delivers 150 cubic feet of water per second over the south cliffs of the gorge.
Every year more than 3.6 million visitors come to see the famously picturesque waterfall — from local Oregonians looking for a weekend getaway to tourists from around the world. And while those crowds — fed largely by Interstate 84 and its direct exit to the falls — have been a boon for the Multnomah Falls Lodge snack bar, coffee cart, gift shop and restaurant, they've introduced a multitude of problems for the people tasked with caring for the site.
Those issues range from dealing with waste to maintaining the trail leading to the top of the falls. But parking and traffic are the biggest concern volunteers face.
"Right now, we are in a position of potentially loving Multnomah Falls to death," said Don Hamilton, a spokesman with the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), which has a stake in keeping the roadways flowing around the tourist attraction.
Hunting for parking
Multnomah Falls has two parking lots. The lower lot, accessible via I-84, has 150 spaces, while the upper lot along the Historic Columbia River Highway has room for 120 vehicles. It is along the narrow, two-lane historic route where a lot of the congestion bottlenecks, as drivers hunt for a spot while waiting for people to cross the roadway. Sometimes the wait boils over with frustrated visitors making their own parking lot by ditching cars along the side of the highway.
And in the lower lot the trials of parking at Multnomah Falls are increasingly illustrated by a closed gate across Exit 31 when the lot is full.
"We have been forced to close the parking lot with the crowds," Hamilton said.
In the 22 months leading up to May 13, 2016, overcrowding forced the closure of the lower lot on 181 days — roughly 27 percent of the time. Of the closures, almost three quarters took place on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
In the face of the unappealing prospect of parking at the falls, many will turn to alternative modes of transportation with mixed success. Some take advantage of services like Uber and Lyft, though getting a return trip from the landmark is difficult and pricey. A cab from Multnomah Falls often costs around $120 to make it back to Gresham or Portland.
Ron Goodwin, a volunteer with Friends of Multnomah Falls, sometimes will tell those stranded to "go out and ask people heading to Portland for a ride to the bus or (MAX) light rail station."
The best alternative to driving is ODOT's Columbia Gorge Express shuttle bus, which has been steadily increasing in scope since its inception last year, and has the promise of finally solving the crush of traffic at Multnomah Falls.
"The bus is about mitigating the amount of traffic that has been increasing in recent years at Multnomah Falls," Hamilton said. "We are excited by the results so far."
The Columbia Gorge Express was first implemented last year with three small, 20-seat buses linking the Gateway Transit Center (in northeast Portland), Multnomah Falls and Rooster Rock State Park. Operating from Friday through Sunday, including federal holidays, the service exceeds expectations.
Last year the express had more than 30,000 trips over 18 weekends, with positive reactions abound. Rider surveys conducted by ODOT indicated 93 percent of respondents thought the service met their needs and they'd recommend it to friends, while 75 percent who embarked at the Gateway Transit Center chose to ride even though they own a car. Of all the riders who used the service, 63 percent came from outside the Portland area.
"One of the appeals is this provides a way to visit Multnomah Falls for the people who couldn't in the past," Hamilton said.
This year the shuttle was improved. The buses were expanded to full-size coaches, with room for 56 passengers, and an ODOT staff person is now stationed at both Rooster Rock and Multnomah Falls to help things run smoothly. More seating and shaded areas were added to a new stop location at the state park, while accessibility was improved at the Gresham Transit Center at Northeast Eighth Street and Kelly Avenue.
The Columbia Gorge Express departs Gateway Transit Center 12 times with round trip service — still running Friday to Sunday — costing $5 per ticket. Additional buses to Multnomah Falls also depart Rooster Rock regularly. The service began this year during Memorial Day weekend and will operate through Sept. 24.
But, as Goodwin experienced himself in early July, the shuttle isn't a perfect solution. On the way to the falls for his volunteer shift he wanted to take the shuttle, but around noon found himself at the back of a 150-person line awaiting transport. Two buses were running, though there wasn't enough capacity to take everyone at once.
"They came and went and then it was announced the next bus would not be there for 45 minutes," Goodwin explained.
He decided to drive instead, experiencing the same ordeal that so many others face while trying to get to Multnomah Falls. Along the Historic Highway there was an hour wait from the west and 45-minute line from the east, and on the freeway Goodwin queued in another line waiting for a spot to park.
What had begun as an early departure for his 1:30 p.m. shift ended in him arriving 45 minutes late.
The worst time to visit Multnomah Falls is in the afternoon. Rigo Vicente, one of the Forest Service employees stationed at the falls, sees firsthand how crazy things can get.
"Traffic is a big issue for us," he said. "Last Sunday (July 23), cars were backed up along the highway for at least six miles. It makes things difficult."
It's not uncommon for the traffic to stretch west to Wahkeena Falls, as drivers will stop on the two-lane highway to form line for the parking lot. There is no way to get around them, and the patient drivers simply have to wait for the next family to leave. The volunteers and Forest Service employees usually can't get the drivers to keep moving, which would be best for everyone, and so the highway remains jammed.
This not only becomes an inconvenience for travelers, but also can bog down ambulances and other emergency services, as there is no way to pull to the side to let them pass.
ODOT is considering more updates to the Columbia Gorge Express that would further reduce the amount of traffic that jams on the way to the falls and improve the service.
The possibility of expanding to seven days a week has been considered, as has extending the eastern terminus from Rooster Rock to Hood River. By lengthening the route, it would open trips to Bonneville Dam and Fish Hatchery, Cascade Locks, the Eagle Creek Trailhead, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail.
"It's under discussion internally and we're still considering the best options," Hamilton said.
The employees who work at Multnomah Falls avoid adding to the traffic by utilizing a shuttle service to get them to work every day. They park at Rooster Rock State Park and then are brought to the lodge, keeping about 30 cars out of the lots every day.
Multiple groups and people are working toward finding permanent solutions, though it often feels like a no-win situation. And while many of the volunteers and people working at the falls are hopeful that some changes to the system will make things better, their advice for travelers is simple:
"I recommend that if people want to see the waterfall," Vicente said, "leave by 7 a.m."