Hut-to-hut or village-to-village trekking is a popular vacation pursuit in regions as diverse as Europe, New Zealand, the Himalayas and Vietnam.
It's not much heard of in the U.S., but now some hikers, businesses and nonprofits are promoting a vision of walking holidays right in the Columbia River Gorge. But the town-to-trails hiking concept clashes with some old-timers' visions for the Gorge.
In her younger years, Renee Tkach worked as a whitewater rafting guide in Idaho and had no problem roughing it. Now she's settled down near Washougal, Washington, and has raised two kids.
Tkach still likes to get outdoors. But she prefers a bit more comfort as other 40-somethings and boomers do too.
"Folks are going, they don't want to carry a big backpack any longer,” she said. “They want to be able to carry a day pack and be able sleep in a bed at night, experience the culture of the towns, the great agri-tourism we have here in the Columbia River Gorge -- the food, the beer and the wine.”
A 250-mile loop
Tkach is in a position to do something to realize this vision. She's the Gorge Towns to Trails project manager at Friends of the Columbia Gorge. The nonprofit is leading the charge for a grand 250-mile loop trail through the scenic area.
"These communities are in the midst of reinvigorating themselves through recreational tourism and tourism as a whole,” Tkach explained.
When selling the trail vision to affected towns, Tkach said her audiences most latch on to the prospect of more tourism dollars.
"Gorge Towns to Trails isn't just about recreation,” she said. “It's also about facilitating economic development in these towns that are surrounded by these public lands."
Tkach said town-to-town rambles with potential pauses at vineyards and viewpoints could bring a taste of Europe to the Northwest.
Walking from Hood River to The Dalles
Avid hiker and trail crew volunteer Jean Akers of Vancouver, Washington can relate.
"Two years ago I went on a long-distance trail that was 96 miles in Scotland called the West Highland Way."
It was a supported trek with luggage transfers, stops at tea houses and overnights in bed-and-breakfasts.
"This notion of learning a countryside and a culture and experiencing it in the mode that is us - just walking - to me it's personal,” Akers said. “For me, it's spiritual as well. I'm there! I'm present in this experience.”
Akers said she can picture the same setup working in the Columbia River Gorge.
On a hillside speckled with wildflowers above the town of Lyle, Washington, in the eastern half of the Gorge, Akers recently scouted possible routes for new paths along with several other Washington Trails Association members.
The Lyle area is one of three priority corridors identified by Friends of the Columbia Gorge for trail building. The others are Hood River to The Dalles, Oregon, and Washougal to Stevenson on the Washington side.
Friends of the Gorge pegged the full loop wrapping around the Gorge at around 250+ miles. Tkach estimated about 46 percent of the trail mileage already exists.
Opposition to the trail
A National Park Service survey last year found a vocal minority of Gorge residents have reservations about expanded trails. Some county commissioners on the Washington side are not on board either.
Skamania County Commissioner Doug McKenzie said hikers have left a poor impression in his rural neighborhood.
"I've had dealings with some individuals that don't respect private property rights and have no problem trespassing,” he said.
McKenzie said outdoor enthusiasts have blocked driveways and blazed unauthorized trails. He added that he's dubious about the promised economic boost. In fact, his county commission worries more that the drive to extend trails will result in private land being taken out of productive use.
"It's very important for us to protect the little bit of land that we have in our county that isn't controlled by the federal, state and scenic area,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie noted more than 85 percent of Skamania County is already public or park land. Tkach responded that trail corridors across private land can be created with easements that keep the affected land on the county tax rolls.
Underscoring the divergent visions, Skamania County Commissioners have repeatedly gone on record in favor of more logging on state and federal forestland.
Baby steps to a grand loop
According to Friends of the Columbia Gorge leaders, physically building trails is "the easiest part." Politics and process consume much more time and effort.
The trail planners estimate a full loop system wrapping around the Gorge will take many decades to complete. Tkach said in the focus areas, the connections should be done in about ten years.
The Gorge Towns to Trails project kicked off three-and-a half years ago. The first connection completed under the aegis of the project in 2013 was a 2.5 mile trail between the small town of Mosier, Oregon and land trust property on the Mosier Plateau.
Groundbreaking is planned in June for a one mile trail segment that goes east from the Port of Camas-Washougal marina to a junction with the Washougal Dike Trail. Tkach said this section will be the western gateway on the Washington side for the Gorge Towns to Trails vision.
In some respects, Gorge Towns to Trails has its roots in another long distance trail conceptualized more than 25 years ago. The Chinook Trail was envisioned as a 300-mile bi-state loop around the rim of the Gorge. The Chinook Trails Association continues to advocate for this trail. Board member Tom Griffith of Vancouver, Washington said the concept entails more of a backcountry experience. Gorge Towns to Trails would be more of a "front-country" urban thing.
The Chinook Trails nonprofit collaborates with Gorge Towns to Trails. Tkach observed the conceptual routes overlap in places.