Cheryl Hill, 42, lives in Portland and has been volunteering with the Trail Ambassadors Program since 2018. She became a volunteer because she did a lot of hiking and noticed the huge increase in visitors while outdoors, many of which weren’t prepared with a map, water or any of the essentials, and she wanted to help with the clear need for visitor education. “The best part about volunteering is getting to meet people from all over. I’ve chatted with people from all over the country and even international visitors. Everyone is excited to see the beautiful Oregon scenery,” she says.
Program Overview & 2021 Additions
The Trail Ambassadors Program originated as a collaborative effort between the Mt. Hood & Columbia River Gorge Regional Tourism Alliance and Friends of the Columbia Gorge to not only improve the overall visitor experience but also support land-management agencies by increasing user preparedness. Trail Ambassadors places volunteers at popular trailheads in the Columbia Gorge, at Mt. Hood and in the northern region of Oregon’s coast. Volunteers participate in order to give back to the trails they love by engaging with visitors around safety, ethical use of public lands and Leave No Trace practices, as well as sharing opportunities for visitors to engage with local communities.
In 2020 Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) — a nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect and enhance the Oregon hiking experience through advocacy, stewardship, outreach and education — took over the volunteer program. Some of their efforts include trail maintenance and restoration, representing hikers and raising funds, encouraging stewardship for trail users, and teaching health benefits of connecting with the outdoor world. However, because of the pandemic, TKO had to shift much of its programming in regard to how staff, visitors and volunteers could interact on the trails because of physical distancing.
In 2020 TKO started a program in which volunteers could do a hike at any time and record their observations without any public interaction. Volunteers would report back on how full the parking lot is, vandalism, broken or missing signage, trash left on the trail, and any other noteworthy observations such as a tree that may have recently fallen across the trail. It was a lot different than volunteers being stationed in one place and talking to hundreds of visitors but still remained important work that was quite successful considering all the limitations the pandemic had already put on people’s abilities to be outdoors and around other people in close proximity. They pivoted to being able to offer solo, on-trail activities that were more focused on data collection rather than interacting with the public, which appealed to many of the volunteers and allowed them to continue to be involved in some capacity.
With their destination-management efforts, land managers, tourism partners and Trailhead Ambassadors volunteers, TKO has consistently collaborated and worked to keep Oregonians safe and prepared when venturing outdoors. They work not only to show visitors great trails to try out and the many benefits of outdoor recreation but to help educate people about things like safety and conservation of public land, trail ethics, and the health benefits of connecting with the outdoors in general. They also aim to advocate for raising funds from public and private sources to ensure the preservation of Oregon’s trail system in addition to the advocacy for trail access to be provided on an equitable basis to all communities served by public agencies. The trail maintenance, restoration and new-trail construction is at the heart of their mission and values, and remains one of the most important aspects of their stewardship, outreach and education, and advocacy models.
Out-of-state and international visitors have found Trail Ambassadors especially useful while recreating in unfamiliar areas. Additionally, locals are incredibly thankful for the improved recreation experience and have been pleased to see an increase in the number of folks on trails being prepared. The Trail Ambassadors have also helped support local communities, serving as mobile visitor centers, encouraging people to visit local attractions, and recommending favorite nearby restaurants and businesses for hikers to check out following their time on the trail.
The pandemic greatly restricted TKO volunteers in what they were able to offer, so 2021 will unfortunately not have a lot of new additions, as they are hoping to bring back a lot of features of the program that were put on hold last year. However, there will be an increase in the amount of on-trail volunteer opportunities offered, which will be really key in helping gather data on the impacts trailhead efforts are having. They are also piloting a new program called Trail Ambassadogs, which will help provide the pandemic-fueled increase in dog owners with helpful hiking tips and safety measures for their new furry friends. QR codes and more signage at the booths will also be available to help provide information while still limiting face-to-face interactions with the volunteers.Trailhead Ambassadors is actively recruiting and training volunteers for the 2021 season starting April 24, 2021. They are laying the groundwork for Ambassadors activities to take place at trailheads along the North Oregon Coast, Mt. Hood and the Columbia River Gorge, working to provide information visitors need for a safe, informed and positive experience while hiking in the regions. Anyone who is interested can visit their website at TrailkeepersOfOregon.org/TrailAmbassadors/.
This story is part of Travel Oregon’s Industry Spotlight series.