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Photo by Marty Witt.

Northwest Weekend: Astoria, OR

The Northwest along the Columbia River is rich in history. Discover the locations, tales and artifacts from the Age of Discovery, before Washington and Oregon were states, when the region was brimming with exploration and opportunity | by Eli Boschetto

The Northwest along the Columbia River is rich in history, from a vibrant Native American past and a thriving trading post, to the completion of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition, a military encampment and many maritime disasters where river meets ocean. Discover the locations, tales and artifacts from the Age of Discovery, before Washington and Oregon were states, when the region was brimming with exploration and opportunity.

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Day 1

Historic discoveries

Kick off your discovery weekend  with a visit to the Fort Vancouver National historic Site. Established in 1824 and named for English Captain George Vancouver, it was once a bustling fur trading outpost for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Surrounded by rich farmland and offering a variety of wares, it served a variety of European, Native American and early settler communities throughout the region. The U.S. Army later set up camp there in 1849 as an outpost during the Indian Wars. Not wanting to get caught between the brewing English and American territorial dispute, the HBC moved north to Canada. The original fort burned in 1866, but was rebuilt and remained in active service through World Wars I and II.

View an abundance of historical buildings, artifacts and interpretive displays on a self-guided tour of the grounds, where period furnishings adorn several structures, and catch one of the cultural demonstrations at the old blacksmith’s or baker’s shop. Presentations and enactments with costumed volunteers portray life as it was during the fort’s booming years. And be sure to plug your ears during the musket and cannon demonstrations, as professionals armsmen reveal how the fort defended itself before the advent of modern weaponry. Aviation enthusiasts should check out the nearby Pearson Air Museum, where young and old alike will delight in close-up views of classic airplanes—including a replica of the Red Baron’s Fokker triplane. Or try your hand at a takeoff or landing in their interactive flight simulator.

Following the Columbia

After your morning history lesson, hop on I-5 south and cross the Interstate Bridge into Oregon. The northbound lanes are the original (albeit upgraded) bridge over the Columbia River, first opened in 1917. The southbound lanes were added, and traffic divided, in 1958. This is the only vertical-lift drawbridge on the entire length of I-5, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Continue into Portland and onto westbound I-405/US-30 and cross another historic bridge, the Fremont. This is the second-largest tied arch bridge in the world and was completed in 1973. If you’re in need of any outdoor essentials, the downtown Portland REI store is easily accessed right off of I-405. Otherwise, merge onto US-30 west toward St. Helens. Pass one more historic river crossing along the way, the St. Johns Bridge. Opened in 1931, it held a short-lived record as the longest suspension bridge west of the Mississippi until the Golden Gate Bridge was opened in 1937.

Discover the charm of Astoia, where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. And take in panoramic views across to Washington's Cape Disappointment from atop the Astoria Column. Photo by Buff Black.

The tree-covered slopes along the south side of the highway belong to Portland’s famous Forest Park. Part of the Tualatin Mountains and covering more than 5,100 acres, Forest Park contains more than 70 miles of hiking and biking trails—worth a visit on another trip. Before leaving the Portland area, depending on the season, consider a side trip to Sauvie Island. One of the largest river islands in the U.S., it is located at the convergence of the Willamette River, Columbia River and Multnomah Channel. The north side of the island is a wildlife refuge with good bird watching and several miles of riverfront beaches; the south side of the island is farmland with several opportunities to purchase locally grown produce and berries.

Continuing west on US-30, pass through the small towns of Rainier, Clatskanie and Marshland. When the highway comes alongside the Columbia again, this is Cathlamet Bay. Offshore is the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge. Accessible only by boat, this chain of 20 islands stretches for more than 27 miles and is home to a wide variety of sea- and shorebirds, songbirds and raptors; otters, seals, sea lions and migratory salmon can often be spotted in the river. Hiking opportunities are limited due to accessibility and the islands’ natural wetlands, marshes and mud flats, but viewing opportunities are available from points along the highway or by visiting the Twilight Eagle Sanctuary. Count how many eagles, gulls and waterfowl you can spot in the trees and offshore. When you’re ready, Astoria is just a few miles farther west.  

Where river meets sea

Founded in 1811 and named for wealthy investor John Jacob Astor, Astoria sits on the shore and hillside above the Columbia River’s confluence with the Pacific Ocean. Nearby is Fort Clatsop National Monument, where the Corps of Discovery spent a frigid winter just a handful of years before Astoria’s establishment. The fort, part of the Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks, is worth a visit—plus, you’re probably ready to stretch your legs. The visitor center offers information on the area’s natural and historical significance; a replica structure of the original Fort Clatsop is open for exploration. Then, follow in the footsteps of the original expedition by taking a walk on the Fort to Sea Trail. The 6.3-mile (one way) trail begins at the fort and climbs gently to a viewpoint atop Clatsop Ridge. From there, descend through forest to coastal pastureland. A tunnel crosses under the highway, then a bridge over Neacoxie Creek, to reach the dunes and shoreline forest of Sunset Beach. Explore at will and return by the same route.

Photo courtesy of Cannery Pier Hotel.

After a day well spent, head back into Astoria, where an abundance of eateries, galleries, bookstores, hotels and B&Bs await to entice. Stroll through downtown and peruse the many quaint shops offering everything from local baked goods and art to nautical memorabilia and kitschy knickknacks. For a unique lodging experience, indulge in a room at the Cannery Pier hotel. Selected as one of the “Best Hotels in the West” by Sunset magazine, this luxurious hotel sits on the pier of the former Union Fish Cannery, 600 feet into the Columbia River. Enjoy cocktails with spectacular views across the Columbia River to Cape Disappointment, or take a ride along the waterfront with complimentary vintage bicycles. For dinner, choose from any of the local restaurants and brewpubs serving up fresh, local seafood and Northwest cuisine, then check out the local music and theater offerings to finish off the evening.

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Day 2

From movies to murals

The next morning, drop into Coffee Girl at the end of Pier 39 for your favorite morning concoction and a fresh pastry, served in the oldtime tradition of the Bumble Bee Cannery. While you’re there, order up one of their fresh deli sandwiches to take with you on the day’s adventures. Next, head over to the corner of Eighth and Duane Streets to the Captain George Flavel House Museum, famously known for its appearance in The Goonies. Built in 1885 and once inhabited by Flavel, a river bar pilot and one of Astoria’s most prominent citizens, the lavish Queen Anne-style home is open for daily tours. A block away, you can also see the Clatsop County Jail, used for the jailbreak scene in The Goonies. A functioning jail from 1914 to 1976, it now— appropriately—houses the Oregon Film Museum which showcases the cinematic history of Oregon, including favorites such as Short Circuit, The Black Stallion, The Ring and the silver-screen rendition of Jon Krakauer’s haunting Into the Wild.

Before you head for more rural ground, no visit to Astoria would be complete without first climbing the 164 spiraling steps to the top of the Astoria Column. Completed in 1926 and modeled after Trajan’s Column in Rome, Italy, the 125-foot Astoria Column sits perched atop Coxcomb Hill, 600 feet above the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean. On the exterior of the column, a winding mural—more than 500 feet in total length!—depicts the history of the region, reaching all the way back to pre-Native American days and progressing forward through the ages of discovery, exploration and industrialization. From the viewing deck on top, take in a 360-degree bird’s-eye panorama. Watch below as bar pilots—one of the most hazardous jobs in the Northwest—navigate boats and ships past the Columbia Bar, the treacherous confluence of the Columbia River with the Pacific Ocean. Known as the “Graveyard of Ships,” the Columbia Bar and surrounding area is responsible for the sinking of more than 2,000 ships since the late 1700s.

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Walk in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark on trails through coastal forest at Cape Dissapointment State Park. Photo courtesy of Washington State Parks.

Day 3

From Cape Disappointment to discovery

 Now it’s time to put the hiking legs back on and continue the weekend’s journey. Hop on US-101 north and cross the 4.1-mile-long Astoria-Megler bridge. Opened in 1966, it was the final connection on US-101 linking Los Angeles, California, to Olympia, Washington. The longest continuous cantilever through truss bridge in North America, and built to withstand 150 mph winds and 9 mph currents, it begins more than 200 feet above the water on the Oregon side, and drops to a mere 20 feet above the water for the final span to the Washington side. Continuing north, pass through Fort Columbia State Park, the small fishing village of Chinook and into the town of Ilwaco, then follow signs to enter Cape Disappointment State Park. Named by a “disappointed” Lt. John Meares, who was unable to find the entrance to the Columbia River on his 1788 coastal exploration, the prominent headland has a storied history, including Native American culture, tragic shipwrecks, an encampment for Lewis and Clark and a defensive battery emplacement. The Cape Disappointment Lighthouse was constructed in 1856 and is the oldest working lighthouse on the West Coast.

Begin your park exploration with a tour of the North head Lighthouse. Put into service in 1898 because ships continued to be shattered on the Columbia Bar, this second lighthouse was meant to assist those who could not see the Cape Disappointment beacon on the other side of the bluff. Still in operation—though now automated instead of manned—the lighthouse continues to serve its navigational duty. Next, pay a visit to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. Perched high above the Pacific with stellar views, the center tells the story of the Corps of Discovery expedition through displays, artwork and a short film, and there are interactive exhibits for the kids. There is also information on the area’s maritime and military history. From the visitor center, short paths lead to the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse and the nearby Battery Harvey Allen. In winter and spring, the high viewpoints are ideal for spotting migrating humpback whales.

When you’re ready to hit the trail, you have 8 miles of established routes to choose from. Starting at the Beard’s Hollow Trailhead, hike north and retrace the steps of the Lewis and Clark Expedition through windswept and salt-sprayed coastal forest, then coastal dunes. The trail continues all the way to Long Beach, where several monuments commemorate the northernmost reach of the expedition. South from Beard’s Hollow, the Westwind Trail traverses forest and marshes to the North Head Lighthouse—an alternative to driving. The route continues south as the North Head Trail to McKenzie Head, a high bluff where the expedition once camped, and later the site of a military emplacement. Staying the night after your hike? Pitch your tent in one of the many campsites in the park—one of the most popular in Washington’s state park system. Or, if you made reservations, stay in one of the cozy yurts or cabins. If home and “real life” beckons, take an alternative route by way of SR-4 east to the I-5 junction in Longview.

A quick weekend isn’t nearly enough time to explore everything there is to do and see as you follow history down the Columbia River. But on your own weekend of discovery, you’ll get a sample of what opportunities await—and discover some new ones for next time

A scenic sunset behind the Astoria bridge. Photo by Buff Black.

This article originally appeared in the Mar+April 2013 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.