A nature park at Punchbowl Falls, a waterfall near Dee, got an official welcome Wednesday with a gathering of leaders who helped make the land deal possible.

Representatives from Hood River County, Oregon State Parks, Western Rivers Conservancy, Hood River Valley Residents Committee, Trailkeepers of Oregon and a handful of recreation groups came together at the parks’ trailhead off Highway 281.

The casual party honored Punchbowl Falls Nature Park’s first summer under county ownership. A low impact park, changes will include new trails, improved parking, signage, restrooms and a riverside overlook.

Western Rivers, a Portland-based conservation nonprofit, transferred the 103-acre property to the county this spring.

“The reason we’re here today is to really celebrate the conveyance of the property to Hood River County, and the park is now in the county’s capable stewardship … they are really are a perfect partner in this project,” Josh Kling, the group’s assistant program director, said.

A popular hiking and swimming site for more than 100 years — and a tribal fishing hub for thousands more — Punchbowl Falls forms where the West Fork Hood River pours over a basalt ledge into a circular bowl carved into the steep canyon.

The riverside realm has served as a de-facto park for decades, but now it’s on the books as a county park, and shielded from future development “in perpetuity,” according to Western Rivers.

M.G. Devereux, Oregon State Parks deputy director, applauded the project due to its public access and enjoyment.

“This is one of those areas that (the county) will be able to point to for generations, to come and say as a community, ‘We came together, we will continue to use this place as a community focus point,’” Devereux said.

He characterized the trails and other recreational highlights as a chance to “not only serve your residents but also bring other folks to experience this wonderful beauty.”

County Chair Ron Rivers evoked personal nostalgia, drawing upon his childhood experiences on the Hood River.

“I was raised in the little town of Dee, it was a mill town … this river was our playground,” Rivers said.

The team effort to turn over the Punchbowl property into public ownership came about a decade ago.

It all started with an “innocuous phone call” from Phil Wallin, co-founder of Western Rivers, who pitched the idea, Rivers said.

Western Rivers began purchasing parcels along the Hood River in 2006, eventually assembling the 100-plus acres that became Punchbowl Falls Nature Park.

The group “jumped at the chance to make sure that this property wasn’t developed,” Kling explained.

The total acquisition and development budget was $1.2 million.

Western Rivers put up half of that, and the rest came from a state grant and funds from the county, Hood River Valley Parks and Recreation District and local donations.

The Residents Committee steered the public engagement and visioning work, which helped the county finally secure the $470,000 grant after several failed tries.

It became a “total community effort,” Rivers said, and “what the Valley Residents did to get this thing rolling that was the key.”

Rivers thanked Heather Staten, the group’s executive director, for her hard work on the project.

Speakers noted the new trailhead sign, which welcomes park-goers to the site.

Crafted by local construction guru Tom Heuberger and installed this week, the sign marks the entrance to Punchbowl Falls Nature Park. Topping the rustic design is a salmon captured in mid-swim.

The sign reads, “Western Rivers Conservancy and Hood River County are proud of protecting this special stretch of the Hood River and creating a park for the people of Oregon to explore, cherish and enjoy.”

Trail builders welcomed

Trail building at Punchbowl Falls Nature Park begins in earnest this week.

Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) will lead a series of volunteer work parties to build a new loop trail, starting with the West Fork Overlook section.

“Building fresh trails is really fun,” Jeff Statt with TKO said, and anyone comfortable with basic yard work is qualified to volunteer.

Tools, hardhats and basic instruction are provided on site. Bringing your own gloves and long pants is encouraged, Statt said.

The early work on the Punchbowl Trail will involve clearing new trail route and clearing the rough trail tread. Each work session starts at 9 a.m. and typically lasts 4-6 hours.

To volunteer, sign up online at www.trailkeepersoforegon.org/events. For more information about trail building, email volunteers@trail keeprsoforegon.org or contact Heather Staten at 541-490-5225.

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