Assessing the Impacts of Waterfall Tourism in the Columbia River Gorge


People have always been drawn to waterfalls. Their dynamism, unique sensorial stimulation, and therapeutic power make them irresistible destinations. As attractions, waterfalls have a history as long as tourism itself.  Before modern day tourism, the only waterfalls known to people outside of their local vicinity were those located along major roads or navigable rivers (Hudson, 2012). People’s interest in visiting waterfalls stemmed from the urge to experience the “sublime” through being awestruck by the power and scenic splendor of waterfalls. Interest in waterfalls led to tourist development like the building of roads, trails, and lodges (Lofgren, 1999). As infrastructure and transportation improved in the late 17th century, increasing amounts of middle and upper class “leisure” travelers came into contact with waterfalls. Tourists took so much notice to waterfalls that by the 18th century books were being written specifically to guide travelers to falls and other places of sublime natural beauty (Urry, 1990).

Waterfall tourism has evolved greatly since it’s beginnings the 18th century. Many of the larger or more significant waterfalls are now developed and advertised as primary destinations (Hudson, 2012). The ease at which we can now visit waterfalls is beneficial yet problematic for a variety of reasons. Visitation can benefit local communities by giving economic support to rural areas that may not experience it otherwise. It also mixes cultures and expands their capacity to house more tourists (Adamson, 2016). This isn’t always the case, however, as local communities don’t always reap the full economic benefits. Such was the case in Yosemite when the park’s accommodations were taken over by a single concessionaire who absorbed much of the tourist revenue and left little for the local community (Hyde, 1990). Visitation can also harm riparian ecosystems that thrive near waterfalls, despite ecotourism aims of leaving minimal impact. Unintended consequences of tourist visitation like increased erosion or trampling of undergrowth can lower water quality and harm plant vitality in riparian ecosystems (Dougherty, 2009). It is important to consider these potential issues when making waterfalls more accessible.

Framing Question: What are the costs and benefits of having a waterfall be easily accessible?

Situated Context: The Columbia River Gorge is Oregon’s premiere waterfall destination, containing upwards of 80 waterfalls on the Oregon side. The Gorge itself is a massive canyon carved by the Columbia River that spans 80 miles from Troutdale to Hood River. A wide range of topography and elevation makes the gorge an extremely diverse place ecologically, transitioning from lush woodlands to shrubby grasslands in eighty miles (Topik, 1982). A combination of bedrock tilt, basaltic lava flows, heavy erosion from the Columbia River, and lesser rates of erosion from tributary streams makes the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge a waterfall heaven (Allen, 1979). The Washington side contains fewer waterfalls due to its gentler topography and lack of hanging valleys. Many of the Gorge’s waterfalls lie within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (NSA) that is managed by the Columbia River Gorge Commission and the United States Forest Service (USFS, 1992). The Columbia River Gorge is also one of Oregon’s primary tourist attractions, drawing millions of people each year. Of all the sights to see in the Gorge, Multnomah Falls is the most popular. It’s proximity to I-84, easy access, and claim to fame as Oregon’s tallest waterfall makes it a sought after destination. A paved trail leads to both tiers of the falls with a bridge spanning between the lower and upper tier. There is also a lodge at the falls which sells souvenirs and provides amenities.

Research Question: What effects does waterfall tourism have on ecosystem health and economic growth in the Columbia River Gorge?


A possible methodology could include a comparison of ecosystem health between a highly visited waterfall and one that is rarely visited by humans. Health assessment will be based on: water quality (test for dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature, salinity and nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), measurement of suspended load (turbidity), measurement of fish diversity, and benthic algal growth.

For measurement of suspended load: Estimate suspended load by dipping a standard 640 ounce bucket into Multnomah Creek at a point where the stream bed is well mixed with regards turbidity and grain size. A well mixed point in the stream is typically directly below a waterfall or rock bar. Upon obtaining the sample, I would weigh the bucket containing a combination of water and sediment, then filter out the sediment to weigh it alone. This would give a measure of sediment concentration. Sediment concentration combined with a stream’s flow rate gives a measure of total sediment discharge (Perlman). To compare sediment discharge between a well visited waterfall like Multnomah and a lesser crowded site, I would perform this same measurement for Herman Creek, a stream that is also in the Columbia River Gorge but receives next to no visitation.

A cost benefit analysis of tourism at Multnomah Falls. This will include: Defining the goals of tourism at Multnomah Falls, compiling alternate possibilities for tourism in the Columbia River Gorge, list stakeholders, select measurements (ex. Of what businesses? Over what time period?), then convert possible costs and benefits of tourism at Multnomah Falls into a common currency,accounting for externalities. After this is figured out, I would apply a discount rate, calculate a net present value of tourism at Multnomah Falls, then assess the impacts (Chakravarty, 1987). Is tourist development at Multnomah Falls worth the costs?

Broader Implications:

Waterfall tourism is relevant as we continue to grapple with the fine balance between encouraging visitation and preserving these sites. A better understanding of the potential benefits and drawbacks of tourism in waterfalls will be helpful for an updated version of the Columbia River Gorge Management Plan. Measurement of suspended load, water quality, and other ecosystem health indicators would provide concrete examples of how visitation impacts riparian ecosystems near waterfalls. Besides the formation of policy, research on the impacts of tourism can provide guidance to how tourist  infrastructure like roads, trails and lodges should be built or designed at waterfall areas. Cost benefit analysis of tourism at waterfall sites will also aid in understanding the potential economic impacts of making certain waterfalls into tourist destinations. Despite some potential negative impacts on riparian ecosystems, waterfalls are therapeutic for humans and should be enjoyed by the public, it is just important to consider how visitors can enjoy a waterfall experience in a sustainable way.


Adamson, Joni, Gleason, William A., and Pellow, David N., eds. 2016. Keywords for Environmental Studies. New York: NYU Press.

Allen, John Eliot. The Magnificent Gateway: A Layman’s Guide to the Geology of the Columbia River Gorge. Scenic Trips to the Northwest’s Geologic past; No. 1. Forest Grove, Or.: Timber Press, 1979.

Chakravarty, Sukhamoy (1987). “Cost-benefit analysis”. The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics. 1. London: Macmillan. pp. 687–690. ISBN 0-333-37235-2.

Dougherty, Michael L. 2009. “Ecotourism and Sustainable Development, 2nd edition – By Martha Honey.” Natural Resources Forum 33, no. 4: 340-342

Hudson, Brian J. Waterfall. RB-Earth. London: Reaktion Books, 2012.

Hyde, Anne F. “From Stagecoach to Packard Twin Six: Yosemite and the Changing Face of Tourism, 1880-1930.” California History 69, no. 2 (1990): 154-69.

Löfgren, Orvar. On Holiday : A History of Vacationing. California Studies in Critical Human Geography; 6. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Perlman, Howard, and USGS. “Sediment and Suspended Sediment.” USGS Water Science School.

Topik, C., Wagner, D., Cook, S., Udovic, J., & Frank, P. (1982). Columbia River Gorge. Science, 745.

Urry, John. The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies. Newberry Park, 1990.

United States. Forest Service. Management Plan for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Washington, D.C.?]: [USDA Forest Service], 1992.

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