Last year we spent several weeks in the Astoria, Oregon area enjoying the ocean. We fell in love with the area and the amazing access to beaches, trails, and great wildlife viewing. So, this past week when we checked the weather forecast and noticed a stretch of sunny days we knew exactly where we wanted to head for a mini-getaway.
Astoria is situated at the mouth of the Columbia River where it meets with the Pacific Ocean. It has an incredible amount of history from the Chinook peoples who originally inhabited the area, to the Lewis and Clark expedition and John Jacob Astor who came to the area to explore and trade. However, the best part about Astoria is its central location to a number of great state and national park sites as well as national wildlife refuges. You could fill weeks with visiting these amazing natural areas (last year we did). However, for our second trip to Astoria we concentrated on visiting our favorites such as Benson Beach at Cape Disappointment State Park where you can walk to the North Jetty of the Columbia River. We also scrambled over a good deal of the South Jetty on the Oregon side by walking down to the beach at the northern tip of Fort Stevens State Park.
During our time in between rock hopping along jetties we watched sea lions on the docks in the Port of Astoria. For us it doesn’t get any better than observing sea lions up close so we made sure to visit them each day that we were in town. We also headed back to the Astoria Column to fly wooden gliders off the top of the column and roll down the hill. And finally to our great disappointment we were bested once again by the Weather Beach Trail at Leadbetter Point State Park. This is our second attempt to hike this trail from Willapa Bay to the Pacific Ocean and each time we are met with waist high water. We are determined to complete it one day and will try again. Luckily the protected Willapa Bay makes a nice warm place to play in the mud and we never leave Leadbetter Point too disappointed. Plus it gives us an excuse to keep returning to the Astoria area to take advantage of all the great parks and activities.
We are finally settled in our new rental house in Vancouver, Washington! Leaving Montana and heading towards a more populated area we were afraid that we would lose the access to wild places that we love so much. However, we have been pleasantly surprised with how many parks and wildlife refuges exist in the greater Vancouver area. We were even more delighted to find out that there is a homeschool group that gets together for “Wilderness Wednesdays”. We love to get out into nature whenever possible, but what a great idea to make a special trip to a favorite nature based destination every Wednesday.
For our first “Wilderness Wednesday” we headed east of our new house to the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Washougal. When we arrived there were two school buses in the parking lot bringing local school kids to the refuge on a field trip. It was great to see so many kids out in nature. The Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge is is comprised of 1,049 acres of wetlands, woodlands, and field that border the Columbia River. The diversity of habitats makes it a great place to view a variety of birds.
We didn’t have to make our way very far down the refuge trail before we started seeing birds. From song birds to water birds our three hour visit at the refuge was packed with bird sightings. In total we ended up viewing 15 species of birds, four of which were new species for our Family Big Year. On our way down the path towards the Columbia River we were most excited to spot three Hooded Mergansers. The coloring of the male is really something!
However, our trip back from the Columbia River to our car was even more exciting as we passed by a small section of woodlands and heard an owl hooting. We stopped to listen and used our best owl imitation to hoot back. The owl responded and we called back and forth for several minutes before spotting the owl tucked up close to a tree trunk. It took a while before we got all five of us to clearly see the owl and just as we were able to leave a second owl swooped down and perched on a lower branch giving us an amazing view. We were able to snap some great shots of what we can now tell was a Great Horned Owl (although it looked really wet). Then both of the owls flew off over the water to a second patch of woodland. It was really an amazing sight!
When we finally made it back to the car we were exhausted. Even though we had only walked about 2 1/2 miles we had worked hard looking, listening, and observing new bird species. It turned out to be a very successful Wilderness Wednesday and we can’t wait for the next one.
Until a week ago we didn’t know much about Astoria, Oregon. However, with our vacation rental being located just over the 4 mile long Astoria–Megler Bridge we have spent a great deal of time these last two weeks getting to know this city of just under 10,000 residents. Situated on the bank of the Columbia River, Astoria is designated as being the first permanent U.S. settlement on the Pacific Coast. Since the early 1800’s the Port of Astoria has been vital in the shipping of goods to and from the area. However, not all of Astoria’s attractions have to do with the fishing or shipping industry and on a recent overcast day we kept ourselves busy by exploring some other sites of interest that Astoria has to offer.
The Astoria Column There is no better place to get a view of Astoria, Oregon than the Astoria Column. This monument stands 600 feet above sea level and offers a 360 degree view of the surrounding area. The column was constructed in 1926 and is decorated with a hand-painted spiral frieze that depicts historical events of the area. While the 164 step climb to the very top of the column can be a bit dizzying (the staircase is a spiral the entire way up) the view from the top is remarkable. In addition the visitor shop sells small wooden gliders that can be thrown from the top. The Younger Fives really enjoyed launching their gliders from the top and were given several gliders to toss by older visitors to the tower. The boys would have happily spent the entire day going up and down the tower to throw and retrieve gliders.
Flavel House Museum We made our way down from the Astoria Column and headed to the large Queen Anne style house on the corner of 8th and Duane streets. The beautifully constructed house was owned by Captain George Flavel who was a bar pilot on the Columbia River and a prominent businessman in Astoria. After being very successful in a variety of business ventures over the years he had the house built in 1886 for his wife and their two daughters. The house was eventually left to the city in 1934 and has since been transferred to the Astoria Historical Society who have restored the house and property to reflect the Victorian period and the history of the Flavel family. The history of the family was interesting, but we especially enjoyed the architecture of the house and the variety of trees planted in the garden including a very large Sequoia Tree.
Astoria River Walk and Sea Lion Dock
After being on our best behavior around the antiques in the Flavel House we needed to let off some energy. Thankfully the Astoria River Walk trail offered the ideal location to run around and view all the activity along the Columbia River. The paved path is about 6 miles long and follows the old train tracks. Starting in the spring a passenger trolley makes its way along the route. Unfortunately the trolley wasn’t running during our visit, but we had a wonderful time exploring the River Walk from the Maritime Museum all the way down to the Sea Lion Dock. While there has been a lot of controversy in Astoria about the presence of Sea Lions on their docks we all really enjoyed watching the large group of male sea lions trying to find a dry patch of dock to relax on. Their barks are so loud that we could hear them about a half-mile before we reached the docks. Watching the younger sea lions try and muscle in on the much older and bigger males was a very interesting end to our day in Astoria.
After living in Montana we have spent a lot of time learning about Lewis and Clark’s journey to the Pacific Ocean with the Corps of Discovery. We have hiked the Lewis and Clark pass, visited the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls, and traversed many spots along their route west. So, we weren’t so sure how much more Lewis and Clark historical sites we would want to visit on our vacation to the west coast. However, it turns out that the Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks are definitely worth the visit.
Our first stop was Cape Disappointment State Park which offers gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean and the Columbia River. There was so much to do at this park that we ended up coming back for a second day and didn’t even complete all that there was to do. The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at Cape Disappointment was very well done and offered many interactive activities for the Younger Fives. We really enjoyed the fact that the Interpretive Center focused more on the end of Lewis and Clark’s journey to the Pacific.
In addition to the Interpretive Center we really enjoyed the hike out to the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse and the trail down to the beach. The views were phenomenal and we could have spent an entire day looking out over the water watching boats, surfers, and birds. We never made it out to the second lighthouse on site (North Head Lighthouse) and might have to return for a third visit.
At the Interpretive Center we learned a great deal that made us eager to visit other local sites that the Corps of Discovery explored. These included Middle Village/Station Camp and Dismal Nitch. We really loved the informative signs at Middle Village/Station Camp that explained a lot about the Chinook tribes that lived and thrived in the area before explorers came to this coast. Dismal Nitch was a huge hit with the Younger Fives who tried to imagine what it would be like to be stuck on a small piece of land for 6 very stormy days. It must have been so frustrating for Lewis and Clark to be within site of the Pacific Ocean but be trapped along the river in the unrelenting rain.
From Middle Village/Station Camp and Dismal Nitch we made our way south across the Columbia River to Fort Clatsop where the Corps of Discovery spent the winter months before heading back east. After being out in the winds at Cape Discovery and Station Camp we could really understand why the more protected south side of the river was the chosen location of their winter camp. The kids enjoyed the replica fort and exploring under the huge trees of the park. The trail network extending from Fort Clatsop to the Pacific Ocean and along the Lewis and Clark River are really impressive. We had a great time birding along the Lewis and Clark River and enjoyed learning more about the logging industry in the area.
With our vacation rental house being situated right on the Columbia River we were eager to visit the Columbia River Maritime Museum and learn all about the famous Columbia River Bar and why it is designated as one of the most dangerous ports of entry in the United States. Today’s very rainy weather made it the perfect day to spend our time investigating the exhibits inside and outside of the museum.
While the exhibits were well put together and informative we did find that the organization of the museum was lacking. The exhibits didn’t seem to be organized in any sequential order, so walking from exhibit to exhibit felt disjointed. However, the museum did a great job of providing information about the history of the Columbia River where it meets the Pacific Ocean. From the original Native American tribes, to the earliest explorers, through to today’s busy shipping industry that moves goods up and down the river.
There was a lot of information regarding the booming fishing industry that operated in the area and the large number of canneries that were set up along the shores. However, some of the most fascinating exhibits dealt with why the Columbia River Bar is so dangerous to ships and detailed the large number of shipwrecks that have occurred over the years. We enjoyed learning more about how the pilot boat system works and we were impressed to learn that every large trade vessel going up and down the Columbia River must have a specially trained pilot aboard. One for going through the Columbia River Bar and a separate for traveling the river.
Although there were a few hands-on exhibits in the museum, the Younger Fives’ favorite part of the museum was getting to tour the Lightship Columbia which was anchored out in the Pacific Ocean about 5 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River for almost 30 years. We were met aboard by a very helpful museum employee who answered all of our questions about how the Coast Guard helps ships navigate through the bar and up the river. We were then able to explore the inside of the ship where the crew would sleep, eat, and relax when not actively working to help ships navigate between the Pacific Ocean and Columbia River.
All in all the Columbia River Maritime Museum was worth the visit. It wasn’t the most interactive museum that we have visited in our travels and the organization was definitely lacking. However, the wealth of information that it provided regarding the dangers of the Columbia River Bar was just what we were looking for.