One of the first tourists to the Lower Columbia River, William Clark (of Lewis and Clark) summed up what many visitors have repeated when visiting Astoria, Oregon, and the mouth of the Columbia: Oh Joy! The area is a tourist’s delight, and RVers will find much to explore on both the Oregon and Washington sides of the river.A wonderful place to start, particularly if you are interested in Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery, is the visitor center at Lewis and Clark National Historical Park near Astoria. The visitor center has a replica of Fort Clatsop, where the Corps of Discovery spent the winter more than 200 years ago. During the peak tourist season, park rangers don buckskins and reenact what life was like at the encampment. But unlike the Lewis and Clark party, you are not forced to sleep in the cold and eat rotten food. Numerous private RV parks offer convenient camping. Just a few miles away is Fort Stevens State Park, which includes a fort that dates back to the Civil War, but is best-known for being shelled by a Japanese submarine during World War II. Also within the park is the wreck of a ship, the Peter Iredale, which came to grief in 1906 in the seaward area known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” The ghostly frames of the hull still stand above the sand, slowly eroding away, but offering photographic opportunities for the traveler with an artistic bent. Fort Stevens is a large and very popular state park with 174 full hookup campsites, another 302 sites with water and electricity, plus dump stations, showers, cabins, yurts, and miles and miles of bike paths, beaches and hiking trails.
Maritime HistoryTo gain a greater appreciation of the area’s history, go into Astoria proper. The Clatsop County Historical Society has several museums commemorating the area’s rich past, even before Astoria was founded in 1811. For the story of the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” go to the Columbia River Maritime Museum, simply one of the nation’s best maritime museums! Located on the riverfront, it has the Columbia lightship moored alongside two working Coast Guard cutters. Inside the museum are wonderful displays of the history of the river and the people who lived and worked along its banks and in its waters.
Astoria has seen a renaissance of late, which means the RV traveler is not forced to cook at camp each night. Scrumptious restaurants, brew pubs, and cafes provide welcome respite for nights out with fun and fine dining. Many are located along the waterfront, allowing views of ocean freighters as they move up river or out to sea. A boardwalk runs along the waterfront, and there is also a trolley.
For a spectacular view of the area, go to the top of Coxcomb Hill and climb the 125-foot Astoria Column. Even if the fear of heights prevents you from exploring the top of the column, the history of Chief Concomly of the Clatsop Indians and the views from the parking lot make the hill a must-see destination. On a clear day you can see Saddle Mountain, Tillamook Head, or west out to sea, with a lighthouse marking the entrance to the Columbia River. (The column is undergoing a $1 million restoration this summer, and the interior will be closed through September, but the grounds remain open.)
On the North Side
You could spend weeks just exploring the south shore of the Columbia, but that is only half the area, and half the fun. Crossing the Astoria-Megler Bridge from Astoria takes you into Washington state. Once across the bridge, if you head east, or up river, you can visit the national park site of Dismal Nitch, where the Corps of Discovery spent a week during a winter storm. Further east is the “Ellis Island of the Columbia,” or the Public Health Service’s (PHS) Quarantine Station. A private museum is housed in the original PHS building and preserves a fascinating piece of the area’s history. The museum is working with local residents to tell the story of those who were quarantined at the station and what happened to them once they left. While many of those who were detained at the health station were Asian, others were Scandinavians who came by ship to join family and friends in this region heavily settled with Viking descendants.If you turn left, or west, from the bridge, new adventures await! The National Park Service maintains a Lewis and Clark (and Chinook Indian) site at Station Camp, which is just before Fort Columbia State Park. This state park preserves fort buildings dating from the 1890s as well as fortifications that helped to protect the river through the end of World War II.
On both sides of the river are numerous fishing villages with charter boat opportunities and places to put your own boat in the water. Oregon has Hammond and Warrenton and Washington has Chinook and Ilwaco, to name just a few. As you drive west from Fort Columbia State Park, you pass places with some of the world’s best salmon fishing! But once at Ilwaco, you can head for another premier state park: Cape Disappointment. With 60 full hookup sites, 18 with water and electricity, plus another 137 sites, a dump station, cabins and yurts, this Washington state park offers RVers a wonderful base of operations to explore the Long Beach peninsula as well as the Cape Disappointment area.
The cape has two lighthouses to hike to, boat ramps to sail away from, wonderful beaches and hiking trails to wander along, and two premier destinations to check out: Cape Disappointment Coast Guard Station (with the National Motor Lifeboat School) and within the park, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, located and built near the old gun emplacements of Fort Canby. Like Fort Stevens in Oregon, Cape Disappointment State Park is part of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park.
Driving an RV or towing a trailer to the mouth of the Columbia River can lead to an excellent vacation. RV parks abound, from simple RV camps to first-class private RV parks with pools and spas, to excellent state parks with wonderful facilities and recreational opportunities. Services are plentiful with repairs, groceries, medical care and everything else an RV traveler needs. It’s time to hook up and head west. Whether you stay on land, cross the river, or take a charter boat, you, too, will exclaim, “Oh, joy! Ocean in view!”
Kurt Nelson is a writer, photographer and RVer who lives in Milwaukie, Oregon. He is also a volunteer at Lewis and Clark National Historical Park.