Abundant trails for hiking, drama, stunning scenery and wild, rugged coastline all mix together in this historic encounter of America’s most famous explorers. These trail-blazing pioneers, in every sense of the word, had trekked with a Newfoundland dog for some 4,000 miles across what was the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, and finally set up camp at Fort Clatsop in Oregon. It was here that the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery over-wintered from December 1805 to March 1806 in far from perfect conditions. Today, the Fort is one of two main visitor centres and is a great starting point to rediscover their long and arduous journey.
Established on the banks of the Lewis and Clark River – formerly the Netal – Fort Clatsop gives a superb close up experience of how The Corps coped with what was a particularly harsh, wet winter – they only saw 6 days of sunshine during their stay. Somehow adding a sense of reality to the camp’s atmosphere, history almost repeated itself when we visited. Thankfully, rain was absent, but it still remained overcast and cloudy.
The Centre houses a fascinating exhibit hall, a theatre with film presentations as well as a comprehensive museum store. Guide books, Native American arts and crafts, toys and educational games for children are all conveniently under one roof. Just a short walk away is a life-size replica of the Fort built in 1955, with costumed re-enactments which run during the summer from mid June until Labor Day weekend. Demonstrations of muzzle loading and shooting, flint fire starting, candle making and hide tanning all add to the realism.
By navigating the Netul River, The Corps eventually arrived at the site where Fort Clatsop was built. The Netul River Trail is a short 1.5-mile walk along what is now the Lewis and Clark River. This well signposted trail links the visitor centre with the Netul Landing, through numerous majestic fur trees and vegetation.
Photo opportunities are many and if you are fortunate you can share the trail with the region’s natural wildlife. Bald eagles and osprey, elk and black tailed deer are sometimes seen, as well as river otters and native salamanders. Once you reach the landing site, pause for a moment and consider the Corp’s burden of landing solid dug-out canoes in pouring rain, heavily laden with their supplies, and also their 130-pound dog. I think you’ll agree that in itself, that was quite an achievement.
Fort Clatsop opens in the Summer 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily ($5 entry) and in Winter 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily ($3 entry). For details visit www.nps.gov/lewi or call (503)-861-2471.
In Washington State, on the Columbia River’s north bank, Cape Disappointment is the setting for what was for the Corp’s main objective in their trek across the continent. The Lewis and Clark Interprative Centre, perched 160 ft. above the Columbia’s mouth on rugged cliffs, gives you the chance to become completely immersed in the tale of the Corp’s journey from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. Fascinating exhibits include maps, quotes from their journals and large murals.
The Centre also gives you the chance to take part in interactive displays of canoe packing, treasure hunting, as well as experiencing the types of food caught and eaten at Fort Clatsop. It is here you can also see the lens from the North Head lighthouse and if you visit in March or December, trained spotters will help you watch for migrating gray whales.
Today, the State Park at Cape Disappointment offers year-round camping, bike and hiking trails and access to wind swept ocean beaches. The Centre is open daily 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and entry is $3 (adults), $1 (children 7-17), and free for age 6 and under. For more information call (360)-642-3029 or visit www.parks.wa.gov/lewisandclark.
Journey eastwards from Cape Disappointment along US Highway 101 and in a prime location, is Fort Columbia State Park. It was here that Chinook Indians made their home for thousands of years. Formerly a military defense site from 1896 to 1947, the 593 acre State Park offers a freshwater shoreline, ideal for bird watching and picnicking, as well as five miles of hiking trails and historic buildings.
It gives a true feeling of how life was for the Chinook and their famed Chief Concomly. The on-site Interpretive Centre includes a Commander’s House Museum with period furnishings and gives fascinating information on Chinook culture and the history of the fort. During the Summer, the Park is open 6.30 a.m. – 9.30p.m., and in Winter 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Adequate parking is available – $5 per vehicle – and for an open air lunch, there are picnic tables. For more details call (360)-642-3078.
South East of Cape Disappointment across the Columbia, in Oregon, is Fort Stevens State Park. The Park evolved from a thriving Clatsop Indian village, and strategic trading post and stretches for around 4000 acres with wind swept ocean beaches. Trails where you can hike or bike extend for well over five miles, and it gives incredible views of the Columbia River, Astoria, Youngs Bay and the glorious countryside.
To get a first-hand impression of Clatsop Indian life, be certain to visit the replica Indian longhouse west of the World War II barracks. The Park is also home to the only enclosed Civil War earthworks site on the West Coast, and if you visit in the Fall, Civil War re-enactments are well worth seeing. Resting on the sands of Clatsop Beach, after running aground in 1906, the wreck of the ‘Peter Iredale’ is a must see.
Quite close to Fort Stevens, this 278-feet long vessel’s rusting hull still strikes an imposing silhouette against the setting sun. For enthusiasts of all things out-doors, the Park has year-round camping, fishing, swimming and horseback riding facilities. Park day use fees are $3 ($25 per year) per vehicle and you can either call (503)-861-1671 or visit www.visitftstevens.com for more information.
Depending on when you visit this rugged and wildly beautiful part of the Northwest, be sure to kit yourself out in appropriate outdoor clothing. With a mild maritime climate, average summer temperatures can range from 51 degrees F, to 70 degrees F and rain can be just over 1-inch in July. Winter, predictably, is the wettest and windiest time of year and rainfall can easily average 10-inch in December and January. Therefore come prepared with rain jackets or ponchos and waterproof footwear. Somehow, inclement weather can add significant realism to the whole experience. For weather information please call (503)-861-2722.
If there was ever a more determined, resilient or resolute band of pioneers in history, they somehow pale in comparison to Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery. In this account I’ve mentioned some of the main points of interest. There is, however, a lot more to see. The Salt Works south of Seaside on US Highway 101, the Ecola State Park, near Cannon Beach. Station Camp close to Fort Columbia State Park, Dismal Nitch east of the Astoria-Megler bridge, as well as the Fort to Sea Trail. Try and set some time aside and see as much of the National Park as you can. It’ll prove to be one epic journey.