Leaving Westport, we wove our way down Highway 101 along the coast, passing through small fishing towns and eventually crossing the Columbia River into Astoria. The Columbia is huge, second only to the Mississippi River, and here where it enters the Pacific, it is one of the most dangerous waterways in the country. Crossing the Astoria Bridge was a memorable experience – after three miles of level causeway, the road suddenly launches itself into a high span, then a spiraling right turn down to Astoria’s main street. It was a bit sporty on a good day, I wouldn’t want to cross it during one of the area’s famous winter storms.
Our first choice was to stay at the Fort Stevens State Park campground, a very large park along the coast that extends northward and ends in a jetty on the Columbia. We arrived in a steady rain and found that the only sites available were deep into the trees and rather small. With no cable TV available and no chance of using the satellite for a week’s stay, we opted for a very nice park in Astoria, the Lewis and Clark Golf and RV Resort. A new park on the golf course, we had a pull-in site that gave us great views through the windshield of the green grass and hills, and of course, the rain.
We took a trip back to explore Fort Stevens, as it provides great access to the beach and the south jetty of the Columbia. It’s one of many old forts that provided defense from attack during WWII and the actual gun mounts and fortifications can still be seen. Driving north towards the jetty, the view of pounding surf and endless beach was amazing. The mouth of the Columbia is famous for the “bar”, the area where sand and shoals constantly build and change shape causing huge waves to form. It has an amazing history – since 1792, over 2000 major shipwrecks have been recorded, and even with today’s system of dredging, forecasting, advanced navigation systems, and river and bar pilots, it still claims victims each year. One the beach to the jetty is a stark example of one old wreck; the bow of the Peter Iredale, which ran aground in 1906. At the edge of the jetty, a long series of huge rocks extending into the ocean, we watched from the observation tower as the waves crashed into the jetty and the sun began to set on the horizon.
Astoria is a town with character; much like a small version of San Francisco with its up-and-down streets and interesting small shops in the downtown area. Not as fancy or elegant, but still a town with intriguing places to explore. We drove to the highest point in town to visit the Astoria Column, and interesting structure that provides a great view of the area. A must-see for visitors is the Columbia River Maritime Museum, a beautiful building along the waterfront that helps visitors understand the history of the area. The exhibits are unusual; you can pilot a tugboat, stand on the deck of a WWII destroyer (they actually moved the entire bridge from the ship here and then built the museum around it), and listen to the actual recordings of rescues by the Coast Guard. It’s interesting that to enter the river, large ships need two “pilots”, a “bar pilot” until clear of the infamous bar, and a “river pilot” to navigate to the many ports along the Columbia. The pilot groups are completely separate organizations and both require years of training. The bar pilots have the dangerous job of getting on and off ships no matter what the weather, using small boats or helicopters. They make a lot of money – up to $180,000 a year, but considering the danger, deserve every penny.
No trip to the area would be complete without a trip back across the bridge to Cape Disappointment and the Lewis and Clark historic site. Cape Disappointment was named by an explorer looking for the entrance to the Columbia, and sailing from the north, failed to find it and turned around here. The lighthouse is the most photographed of any in Washington, and the best photo site is from the site where Lewis and Clark’s expedition viewed the Pacific Ocean. It’s beautiful here, another magnificent area of crashing waves, sandy beaches, and tangled piles of driftwood. We enjoyed our stay here, and hope to return some day and spend time during the summer months. From here, we continue down the Oregon coast – check back and see where we’ve been!