Trail Keepers

Volunteers build trails—and appreciation—through recreation paradise

By Drew Myron

Hood River Area Trail Stewards volunteers clear a trail in Post Canyon. Photo courtesy of HRATS

Dense forests, dramatic basalt cliffs, majestic river views: The Columbia Gorge is a recreation mecca. Thanks to three volunteer groups, the area’s best—and most popular—trails survive and thrive.

While on one of these paths through paradise, recreationists should give a nod to Hood River Area Trail Stewards (HRATS), 44 Trails Association, and Columbia Area Mountain Bike Advocates. The abundant network of trails was years in the making and born from a rocky start.

When mountain biking exploded in popularity in the 1990s, the Columbia Gorge had no recognized trail system. Bikers created their own paths, barreling through forests, crossing rocky slopes, and jetting along cliff edges.

The environmental impact was dramatic, and concern quickly mounted for a unique region that had just been designated a National Scenic Area. There have been efforts to manage and improve trails ever since.

Two of the Gorge’s most popular trail systems are Post Canyon, an extensive network of trails on the west side of Hood River; and Coyote Wall, across the river near Bingen, Washington. They draw hundreds of people every weekend.

By the 2000s, mountain bikers had created a system of haphazardly designed trails in Post Canyon on land managed by Hood River County, which uses the property for timber sales that provide about 30% of the county’s general fund.

To address the needs of both recreation and revenue, the county worked with federal and state agencies, citizens, and local businesses to develop a master plan that provided a rare situation: a trail system within an active tree farm.

The county then partnered with Hood River Area Trail Stewards. This coalition of mountain bikers develops, builds, and maintains local trails along the Post Canyon trail system—routes that are especially appealing to advanced, high-energy riders—as well as Golden Eagle Park and Pump Track, in partnership with Hood River County Parks and Recreation.

The nonprofit organization has an annual budget of $50,000. Twenty active volunteers build and maintain the trails.

Raising money and recruiting volunteers is easy, says Tim Mixon, HRATS president. The real challenge is overuse.

“There’s been a huge revolution in the last 10 years,” he says. “Bike design has made bikes easier to ride, and the trails are packed. Now there are tons of riders.”

Last spring, during pandemic lockdowns, Post Canyon remained open, but parking was closed. Even so, Tim counted 450 people on a single Saturday.

Lori Middleton, a 44 Trails volunteer, carries a bucket of surfacing material that will help preserve the path’s tread. Photo courtesy of 44 Trails Association

“And this was without parking, so we know these are local users who are riding in,” he says.

Tim is looking for an answer to control the crowds.

“We need to start spreading out,” he says.

The group is working with private landowners to develop additional trails.

“We need to develop other places to ride,” Tim says.

44 Trails Association— the oldest trail group in the Gorge—offers a calm counterpoint for those looking to take the trail less traveled.

The nonprofit all-volunteer organization was founded in the early 1990s by Jim Thornton, trails coordinator for the Forest Service. Seeing the deferred maintenance of his favorite trails, he sprang to action. With dozens of volunteers, he has worked to build and maintain more than 200 miles of trail spanning both Wasco and Hood River counties, primarily within the Mt. Hood National Forest.

The trails—open to hikers, bikers, and horses—are all single tracks just 12 to 24 inches wide, creating an up-close immersion with nature.

Jim retired last year after 40 years with the Forest Service.

“I’m still in the mountains, in the forest, almost every day,” he says. “Trails are the oldest transportation system. To know there’s a legacy that people can enjoy means a lot.”

Across the river in Washington’s Klickitat County, Coyote Wall—often called The Syncline—features massive basalt columns, sweeping river views, wildflower fields, and more than 30 miles of trails.

Like Post Canyon, in the early years, the area’s majestic beauty drew scores of people who formed ad hoc trails that often trespassed on private property. Soon, conflict arose among groups: revved-up bikers, slow hikers, dog walkers, horse riders, and more. Tussles over parking, litter, trespassing, and trail rights grew tense.

From this conflict sprang Columbia Area Mountain Bike Advocates (CAMBA)—a loose network of volunteers who advocated for and now maintain more than 100 miles of trails in a 50-mile radius.

Founded in 2000, the group partnered with the Forest Service and other agencies to create a master plan to accommodate all users.

“To protect these areas, you need to be unified and organized,” says Ann McDonald, a teacher at Hood River Middle School. She founded CAMBA with her husband, Dan, and a handful of friends.

The couple have firsthand knowledge of the passion and pitfalls of recreation. A trail traverses their White Salmon property, where they have lived for 30 years.

“We work side by side with hikers and bikers,” Ann says. “We want to make sure it works for all users.”

While growing for years, the popularity of Gorge trails has seen a surge during the pandemic as people seek wide-open spaces. Trail expansion and education are key.

“The popularity of our trails is getting out of hand,” Ann says. “We live in a beautiful area. We’re not going to stop people coming.

We have to expand the trail network, educate users, support landowners who need help maintaining trails, and protect the land. It’s a cliche, but it’s true: We don’t want to love it to death.”