CASCADE LOCKS, Ore. — Joseph Shelley has spent the last three years making a home in Cascade Locks, but it’s not just for himself: As a “trail angel,” the retired Navy man volunteers to host hundreds of Pacific Crest Trail through-hikers each year, offering his shower, backyard and friendship.
Both the trail and Cascade Locks are getting more attention these days. The narrow grassy slice of town between Portland and Hood River in the Columbia River Gorge plays itself in the upcoming movie “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon and based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about working through life trials by solo-hiking a big chunk of the PCT.
Cascade Locks is also a starting point for the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. Including a new 1.6-mile link completed late last year, this 6.5-mile section of the paved multiuse trail traces the old highway’s path through the Columbia Gorge and lets cyclists avoid riding on Interstate 84 between Troutdale and Cascade Locks.
Even before this attention, the town was reinventing itself. Built where an ancient landslide once created a natural bridge across the Columbia River, it existed to help travelers and barges navigate past the treacherous rapids in this narrow point of the Columbia. But the Bonneville Dam downstream made its eponymous locks obsolete by the 1940s, and the Bridge of the Gods across the river (toll: 75 cents) saw only light traffic.
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Now, Cascade Locks is once again making the most of its status as an intersection, this time connecting people and nature. New owners are buying up old businesses, spiffing up buildings and menus. Thunder Island Brewing Co. opened last fall at river’s edge and can barely keep up with demand for its handcrafted beer. Every waiter and desk clerk in town seems friendly and eager to help.
Welcome stop on trail
For through-hikers on the PCT, this is a welcome stop about four-fifths of the way into a 2,650-mile, four- to six-month odyssey (most travel south to north). The only incorporated town on the trail, Cascade Locks offers just enough civilization — ice cream, a shower, a beer and an Internet connection — to boost spirits and supplies before hikers head back into the wilderness.
Shelley (trail name: Shrek) is remodeling his 1920s-era house, adding a kitchenette and indoor sleeping area for PCT hikers. “We’re kind of like hostels, but we don’t charge,” he said of the handful of volunteers (of 1,600 total) who offer overnight accommodations.
In “Wild,” Strayed recounts a 1,100-mile hike she took from the Mojave Desert to Cascade Locks without much preparation. Some trail advocates fear the best-selling book might encourage more unprepared folks to attempt the journey. “There are people who are hiking it because of the book,” Shelley said. But in reality, he added, you can never be prepared for what it takes to finish the grueling test of both mental and physical toughness. “Most people who do it don’t really know what they’re getting into.”
A taste of the Crest
Because the PCT runs right through town, this could be the single easiest access point for a short excursion on the famous trail. Two spurs come into Cascade Locks: The official trail, navigable on horseback, arrives via the Dry Creek Falls trail. The prettier unofficial leg follows the Eagle Creek trail. Like most trails in the Columbia Gorge, both feature waterfalls plunging through volcanic rock chutes. Still more hikes beckon on the drier, less steep Washington side of the Columbia.
“It’s really only in the last few years that Cascade Locks has really taken up the flag of being a PCT trail town,” said Jack Haskel, PCT trail information specialist. But “it’s a great trailhead to use for the whole gorge area.”
Just as most people who hike anywhere on the PCT take on a single segment rather than the whole thing, you don’t need to be an athlete to enjoy this area. On a recent visit, my mother, husband and I rode on the stern-wheeler Columbia Gorge (portlandspirit.com), looked through the history museum’s pioneer-era artifacts and grabbed a vacuum-packed growler at the brewery.
Biking the gorge
We were also curious about the Columbia Highway trail, so we brought our bikes and hopped on at the west side of town, near the bridge.
The path cuts through dense evergreen- and flower-scented forest but emerges to clearings with wide-open views. Driving amid the roaring rush of the interstate, it’s hard to grasp just how big the gorge is. Pedaling along at my leisure along bluffs above the Columbia gave me a sense of that as well as of communities and surrounding mountains.
Points of interest along the trail: a stairway a couple miles west of Cascade Locks includes a groove for bike wheels but is steep and requires some muscle. The new, 81-foot-long McCord Creek Bridge, near the multiuse trail’s west end, echoes the century-old highway’s craftsmanship. The Bonneville Fish hatchery, accessible via a freeway underpass, is like a free aquarium surrounded by gardens (don’t miss Herman the sturgeon). Views of Beacon Rock (on the Washington side) are unbeatable.
The pavement is generally in good shape, but beware of moss and gravel. The grade is never steep, but it does climb. Since the route passes trailheads for a number of great, short hikes (including Eagle Creek), bring a lock and appropriate footwear to combine cycling with hiking.
Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelance writer.