The Mouth of the Columbia River

It is often said ‘Life is short…eat dessert first’.  

On June 15, we headed up to Astoria, Oregon to take in the western end of the Lewis & Clark voyage to the Pacific Ocean.  For a long time, we’ve had an interest in the route that the Corps of Discovery followed from 1804-1806.  Lewis & Clark and their team went on what could arguably be labeled as the greatest camping trip ever. During our vacation travels in the past through the northern plains, we’ve encountered several references to the expedition. In addition, we’ve seen many historical sites regarding their trip in our visits with our friends Jim and Sue in the area around Alton, Illinois and St. Louis, Missouri.  We can even date it back to our 1993 trip to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis first researched the voyage.  This past March, our friends Fred and Bonnie from HappiLEE RVing urged us to read Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage… a historical biography of Meriwether Lewis…while discussing the subject on the beach in Florida.  They are planning on following the Corps of Discovery route this summer (follow them on their journey!), and it piqued our curiosity.  Having read bits and pieces over the years about the wet and miserable winter the expedition encountered in western Oregon, we had to see the area for ourselves! Our close proximity to the mouth of the Columbia River while we were working at Heceta Head Lighthouse made it possible.  Yes, we were eating dessert first, but we know from experience that life can indeed be short!

The Corps of Discovery sites around the mouth of the Columbia River include locations in Oregon and Washington State Parks, as well as the Lewis & Clark National Historical Park.  The first thing the group encountered was the area along the north shore of the Columbia that William Clark noted as “a dismal little nitch”, as depicted in the drawing above.  

It’s now a tight little bend in US-101 between the Astoria Bridge and a rest area.  Still, it’s easy to envision the expidition being holed up for several stormy days between the rocky shore and the mountainside.

The Corps moved from there to Middle Village.  There is a nice display of the canoes the Clatsop Indians used back then.  It’s not far down the river from Dismal Nitch, still on the Washington side of the Columbia.  It was from that base camp that they first ventured out to the shore of the Pacific.

This is the current view at Cape Disappointment, Washington, which is where Lewis & Clark first saw the mighty ocean’s surf.  Even with the jetties, it is easy to imagine the scene as they viewed it over 200 years ago.

Back at Middle Village, the Corps voted to cross the river into present day Oregon to find a suitable place to spend the winter of 1805-1806.  It was there on a small tributary that they built Fort Clatsop.

This building is a re-creation of the original fort.  The property includes a very nice visitor center that features a couple of movies on the expedition, along with several exhibits that detail the voyage.

There is also a trail from the fort to the canoe landing.  This was a protected area off of the Columbia tributary, now known as the Lewis & Clark River.  From there, the fort was just a few hundred yards away.

After seeing the fort, we drove down to Seaside, Oregon and found the location of the Salt Works.

Situated in the middle of a present-day neighborhood, the Salt Works was identified by a Clatsop Indian woman in the early 1900’s.  Her grandfather had told her of the site when she was a child.  This is where the Corps boiled seawater to get salt to preserve meat for their trip back east in the spring.

Just south of that was Haystack Rock.

Named for its resemblance to a farm haystack, this beach is where the dead whale washed ashore that Lewis, Clark, Sacajawea and several others came to get blubber and oil.  It is located at present day Cannon Beach, Oregon.

Even though the surrounding area was developed with modern buildings and roads, just being able to see the actual locations of the Lewis & Clark sites helps paint a visual image in our minds as to what they endured that winter.  Lewis was very descriptive in his journals and we had a good idea of what we were going to be seeing.  But no matter how good the description, there really is no substitute for putting ourselves on the same soil the Corps of Discovery occupied.  It has given us a desire to check out more of the Lewis & Clark Trail, and we hope to do so in the future!

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22 thoughts on “The Mouth of the Columbia River”

  1. We visited these sites about 14 years ago when did a motorcycle trip up the coast. A few weeks after we were at Fort Clatsop, it burned. So glad it was rebuilt quickly. We will be in Long Beach in a few weeks. I hope to get back down for a revisit. We thought about doing the Lewis and Clark journey one day. Hope your friends have a great time!

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  2. Thanks for sharing some Lewis and Clark history with us! We really enjoyed our stay at Cape Disappointment State Park. We enjoyed standing in the same place you did to see where they first saw the Pacific Ocean.

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      1. We are in the northwest corner of Washington but are heading south and west next week. Will be staying in the Wallowes (northwest Oregon) for a few days and then will be heading down the Columbia toward Portland. Which direction are you headed?

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      2. Sure! Our email is on the sidebar. We are currently not getting emails and phone at our site, but we have a booster on the way this week. I’ll email you when we are up and running!

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  3. So many memories come flooding back reading your post today. Thanks for the hard work and research. Hard to imagine, at this moment, what the cool coastal breezes feel like on your skin. 🙂 .

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the shoutout Jim. Your post and photos make the area come to life. I don’t want to rush the trip but can’t wait to see the Pacific Northwest.

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    1. Oh, definitely don’t rush it, Bonnie! We are talking about maybe following the route in the next couple of years. What an adventure! We are really looking forward to your posts on the trail!

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  5. I have enjoyed your writing about the Oregon coast. We love it there. I have also read “Undaunted Courage” and recommend it. Last year, I took time to read the original journals. That really brought the adventure to life. Thanks for the writing.

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