- Associated Press - Monday, January 27, 2014

VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) - With determination and careful planning, the Columbia River Gorge is set to become a worldwide hiking destination that could give a big economic boost to businesses in Gorge communities.

Trails that take tourists through meadows bursting with wildflowers and paths that give hikers a view of the Columbia River valley could even pass through a vineyard, where visitors could sample local wines. After a long day of hiking, tourists could trek down for dinner at one of the towns along the Gorge and spend the night at a bed and breakfast.

That’s the pitch “Gorge Towns to Trails” project manager Renee Tkach, of Friends of the Columbia Gorge, gave to members of the Chinook Trail Association on Sunday during the association’s annual meeting in Vancouver.

A system of trails that connect to riverfront towns would provide “not a backcountry experience, (but) more of a front country experience,” Tkach said, noting that just a few years ago, National Geographic magazine ranked the Gorge the sixth best place to visit in the world. “We’re on the map. Visitors are coming, and they’re looking for these experiences.”

The Chinook Trail Association’s goal to create one big 300-mile hiking loop around the Gorge goes hand-in-hand with that mission, many said Sunday.

In particular, the two groups are focusing their attention on a new hiking path that would connect part of the Chinook Trail in Washougal to the internationally renowned Pacific Crest Trail as it passes through Stevenson.

About 95 percent of the land needed for that connector trail is already on public territory, Tkach said. The rest will require efforts to buy the property or acquire an easement. Since the groups announced their plans to connect the two trails, leaders in the city of Carson, located just northeast of Stevenson, said they want to link up to the trail, too.

“They’re saying, we’re connecting to Stevenson. Don’t leave us out,” Tkach told the group of about 35 trail volunteers and community members attending Sunday’s meeting.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge has highlighted two more areas in the Gorge that they’re focusing on. They are:

. Connecting the town of Lyle to a 550-acre parcel owned by the Friends group called the Lyle Cherry Orchard. Tkach said there has been some political tension in the town about a new trail, which would start at the town’s high school, but she said a recent survey showed a majority of Lyle residents support the idea.

. Connecting Hood River to The Dalles in Oregon. Advocates made progress last year by working on a trail to connect a park in the town of Mosier to lands owned by Friends of the Columbia Gorge. Mosier is already connected by trail to Hood River to the west. The trail in Mosier would provide nearby charter school students a chance to learn biology lessons outdoors.

Tkach said on Sunday that the political outlook is good for Columbia River Gorge trail advocates.

“We have the perfect coalescence of politicians” supporting the project, Tkach said. Washington state’s U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray “embrace this project. They have signed on to support it. They are actively advocating for it in D.C.” Oregon’s senators are on board too, she said.

Also in attendance on Sunday was former state legislator Val Ogden and her husband, Dan. Newly elected Vancouver City Councilwoman Anne McEnerny-Ogle, told the crowd that hiking through the outdoors is good for people’s physical health and their emotional well-being.

The Chinook Trail Association has been advocating for more than two decades for the creation of its 300-foot hiking loop around the rim of the Gorge. The vision includes a path that spans east from Vancouver Lake all the way the Highway 97 Bridge near Biggs, Ore.

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