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Trailhead Ambassador: A Fun Way to Volunteer

April 24, 2019

By Cheryl Hill, Board Member, Trailkeepers of Oregon

“Where is the waterfall?” a man asked me in the Multnomah Falls freeway parking lot. I pointed over his shoulder to Oregon’s tallest waterfall, which could not be heard over the freeway noise.

“You’re almost there!” I told him. A little later a boy who looked about ten years old asked me for information about the “Gorge tsunami” and I gave him a quick summary of the Missoula Floods.

These are the kinds of questions I answered while volunteering as a Trailhead Ambassador last year. The Trailhead Ambassador program launched in 2018 as a collaborative partnership among Friends of the Columbia Gorge, the Mount Hood and Columbia River Gorge Regional Tourism Alliance, Oregon State Parks, and the US Forest Service. Volunteers stationed at trailheads in the Columbia Gorge and Mount Hood National Forest greet visitors, dispense information, and explain Leave No Trace principles.

“People volunteer because they want to be a part of something that matters to them,” says Trailhead Ambassador Coordinator Natalie Ferraro. It’s also a great volunteer opportunity for people who wish to give back but aren’t able to work on a TKO trail crew.

A group of adults stand around a table under a tent with a “Trailhead Ambassador” banner in front of a green forest.

Trailhead Ambassador volunteers answer questions at the Latourell Falls Trailhead. (Photo by Cheryl Hill)

Other Trailhead Ambassadors I’ve talked to have their own stories to tell about their experiences. Keri and Tracy Sprenger volunteered last year. They signed up because they do a lot of hiking and wanted to share their knowledge. “We loved how many different people we were able to meet,” said Keri. She remembers talking to a lot of hikers at the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) Trailhead in Cascade Locks who were unsure about the route to Dry Creek Falls. She and Tracy were familiar with the trail. “We were able to give them info on where we have seen people get turned around or make a wrong turn,” she said.

Jess Selig also volunteered last year. One day she talked to a family from Greece who had to cross almost everything off their list due to the Eagle Creek Fire closures. “I spent almost an hour with them mapping out a new plan that sent them to Hood River and Mount Hood,” said Jess. “They didn’t even realize how close they were to the mountain. They thought it was on the other side of the state! By the time they left they were back to being excited about their trip.”

Ambassadors talk to locals and tourists alike, warning people about poison oak, reporting on the state of the wildflower bloom, giving an overview of the trail and what to expect, reminding hikers to pack out their dog’s poop, and relaying information about the Eagle Creek Fire and closures. When asked, volunteers recommend nearby hikes and attractions, best places to eat, and where to camp.

In 2018, 94 Trailhead Ambassador volunteers donated 1,848 hours of their time while engaging with over 23,700 visitors at 10 trailheads, which adds up to $45,627 of in-kind labor.

“We learned a lot of things during our first year of running the program,” said Friends of the Gorge Outreach Manager Maegan Jossy. “The biggest takeaway was that every trailhead has its unique ‘ecosystem,’ from the type of hikers, to the frequently asked questions, which wildflowers are in bloom, and the punch-list of nearby trails and their features.”

This year volunteers will be posted at 11 Columbia Gorge and Mount Hood trailheads. A new addition this year is the Angel’s Rest Trailhead. The trail had been closed after the Eagle Creek Fire, but after a lot of effort—including 2,651 hours of volunteer work by TKO trail crews—the trail reopened in November.

“If you love hiking and value all that trails have to offer, being an Ambassador is one of the most impactful ways to help protect them,” says Natalie. “Giving hikers timely access to information on recreating responsibly empowers them to build their outdoor experience around healthy choices, not just for themselves, but for the trail and the ecosystem they’re visiting.”

How to Sign Up: For more information and to see a schedule of training sessions, visit the Friends of the Gorge website.

Cheryl Hill: cheryl.hill@trailkeepersoforegon.org

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