Columbia River Gorge ecosystem

Asked April 8, 2015, 10:37 PM EDT

I've seen people doing offtrail explorations up in the Gorge, and I'm wondering if that causes irreparable damage to the mosses or anything growing in that area; I'm wondering how sensitive that ecosystem is. I'm not finding anything online, so if you could direct me to something, I'd appreciate it! Thanks!

Multnomah County Oregon natural resources

5 Responses

Great question and thanks for bringing it to us.
Going off the trail is something many of us have done who love exploring the natural world. To answer your question, the damaged caused can be very littke of a great deal. In the high use areas close the popular trails, it can harm plants, compact the soils, and increase chances of erosion. That is why you may see signs that read, "don't cross switchbacks". This is when a hiker goes off the trail to avoid those sharp turns in the trail as you go up or down a steep slope. More damage can be caused in steep terrain and areas that receive lots of rain, something the Columbia River Gorge is well know for. In less used areas of the forest, going off the trail will usually cause little damage. Plants are generally pretty resilient. Wildlife for the most part stay off the trail.

The decisions to stay on the trail or explore areas off the trail has many facets. Safety is primary of course, especially in the Gorge. The numerous steep slopes and cliffs must be carefully taken into consideration along with the experience level of the hiker. Another factor to consider is how much use the area receives from other hikers and the type of plants in the area. Some plants are very sensitive to any kind of impact, others can bounce right back. The more you know about the plants, soils, and wildlife of the area, the better informed you will be to make decisions to go off trail.

Here is an example from one of my decision making experiences to stay on or off the trail: I was exploring a coastal forest near Astoria about 15 years ago and wandered out into a shagnum bog area of a Sitka Spruce Forest. I was checking out the area to potentially take a classroom of sixth grade students to for a plant study. I noticed the bog area I was in and decided to return to the trail. I could see my foot prints in the bog I had made had quite an impact. I decided right then to not take the sixth grade class out there. That would of caused a lot of damage. For the next 10 years, I would stop by that area of the trail and look out into the site I had gone off the trail and I could clearly see my foot prints in the bog for the nest ten years.

I hope this answered your question. Please keep enjoying the natural world in a safe manner for you and the forest.

Thanks for answering so quickly. Do you know of a field guide that will help me identity the mosses in that area, and how quickly they regenerate? I'd like to join in on these offtrail hikes, if I feel that my damage is minimal. Thanks again!

Good question about field guides for mosses. I don't know of any at the moment. If it was me I would stop by the Portland Audubon Society book store to see what they may have, or give them a call (503) 292-6855. They have a fantastic variety of field guides.

Great idea, thanks!

Thanks again for getting in touch with OSU.
Great Hiking!!!