After the fire
Although the Eagle Creek Fire was contained in November 2017, most hiking trails remain closed for restoration, and the lingering effects of the fire are impeding business — and recreation — as usual.
At the iconic Multnomah Falls Lodge, its restaurant, gift shop and coffee stand's business are directly tied to how much access there is to the falls area, said lodge Vice President Jill Buck.
"If there's no waterfall, there's no business," she said. "It's a crucial part of sustaining who we are."
Multnomah Falls is the most popular natural recreation area in the Northwest, according the U.S. Forest Service's website, attracting about 2 million visitors a year.
The lodge's gift shop and coffee stand have returned to about normal sales, but fewer diners are eating at the restaurant, Buck said. Her theory is that most restaurant diners are locals who now expect the parking lot to be full and aren't showing up for meals.
The parking lot closest to the falls, accessible from the Historic Columbia River Highway, remains closed. The parking lot accessible from Interstate 84 is open, but when that parking lot fills up, there is no immediate access to the falls.
With limited parking, Buck encouraged visitors to take advantage of the Columbia Gorge Express.
The Express is a shuttle service piloted two years ago by the Oregon Department of Transportation, which was paid for with federal and state public transportation funds, according to the Columbia Gorge Express website. The service runs from the Gateway Transit Center in Portland to Hood River with stops at Rooster Rock State Park, Multnomah Falls, Cascade Locks and Hood River.
The shuttle service was halted two weeks early last year because of the fire. That shuttle will begin weekend service on May 25 with daily service launching on June 11.
That service wasn't available for Mother's Day weekend, but reservations at the restaurant filled up well before the holiday. To compensate, lodge staff rented their own shuttle for the holiday.
"We're having to get creative to sustain our seasonal business," Buck said.
In Cascade Locks, business recovery efforts are going well, said City Administrator Gordon Zimmerman, noting that he was basing that off of his own observations and not statistics.
With an early spring season this year, things are looking up in Cascade Locks.
"The tourism season has started early," Zimmerman said. "If it gets over 80 degrees, Portland comes to Cascade Locks and eats."
Cascade Locks and its surrounding area are attracting those interested in examining the effects from the fire.
"What we're seeing is a lot of people who are coming to see what the damage was, and they're coming back to see how it recovers, but the immediate cash flow is kind of tough," Zimmerman said.
Local hotels, East Wind Drive-In, which serves soft ice cream cones and burgers, and Thunder Island Brewing Company depend on visitors.
"We have a pretty consistent local use, but they really depend on tourist dollars," Zimmerman said.
Now that the fire is out, the after-effects from the blaze are attracting tourists. Some travelers are hopping aboard the Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler, a riverboat that operates out of Cascade Locks on the Columbia River from May to October.
"It's kind of interesting to see the (effects of the) fire from the river," Zimmerman said.
Cascade Locks hotels are staying busy, but are having trouble booking rooms in August and September. State parks known to host weddings are still closed, so couples aren't booking nuptials in the area.
Back at the falls
At Multnomah Falls visitors can walk to the base of the falls, but all trails leading past the lower viewing platform are closed. Walking up to the falls, the area is lush with greenery, and other than the gates restricting access to the trails, it's hard to tell there even was a fire.
Rachel Pawlitz, public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service, said she often is asked why the trails are aren't open when there aren't obvious signs of fire. On May 11, she took elected officials slightly past the closure to show them where damage is more apparent.
One of those more noticeable aspects is Shady Creek Bridge, which was destroyed by the fire.
The bridge must be replaced to give hikers access to Benson Bridge, the ornate, concrete span just below the upper falls. Replacement is expected by summer.
Information is posted around the falls and on fences explaining the impacts of the Eagle Creek Fire along with a photo book in the information center.
"We have people who share history and explain the fire and other fact sheets among our security folks," Pawlitz said.
Despite not having access to any of the trails, travelers made their way to the base of the falls to snap photos on Friday, May 11.
Sarah Roberts of Walla Walla, Wash., said she stopped at the waterfall for an extended weekend vacation and to show her daughters Katherine, 4, and Victoria, 2, the dramatically scenic Oregon destination. Although Sarah was slightly disappointed that she couldn't hike closer to the falls, she said her family was just happy to see them.
"We promised them a waterfall," Sarah said.
"I love waterfalls!" Victoria exclaimed.
For more information about the Eagle Creek Fire, visit www.fs.usda.gov/crgnsa.
For more information about the Columbia Gorge Express, visit http://columbiagorgeexpress.com.