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Exploring Astoria

Astoria is the oldest settlement west of the Rockies, and there’s more history here and in the surrounding vicinity than anywhere else along the Oregon coast. Two worthwhile museums (Columbia River Maritime Museum and the Flavel House) will give you a flavor of this port and cannery-city’s thriving past, and nearby Fort Clatsop, where the explorers Lewis and Clark wintered in 1805, takes you back even further. But look around the downtown core and you’ll see the “new” Astoria reclaiming its old buildings for new uses. And if you have time, drive around some of the old neighborhoods where Victorian-era homes are slowly being reclaimed.

Atop Coxcomb Hill, which is reached by driving up 16th Street and following the signs, you'll find the Astoria Column (tel. 503/325-2963; www.astoriacolumn.org). Built in 1926, the column was patterned after Trajan's Column in Rome and stands 125 feet tall. On the exterior wall, a mural depicts the history of the area. There are 164 steps up to the top of the column, and on a clear day the view makes the climb well worth the effort. The column is open daily from dawn to dusk and admission is free. On the way to the Astoria Column, stop by Fort Astoria, on the corner of 15th and Exchange streets. A log blockhouse and historical marker commemorate the site of the trading post established by John Jacob Astor's fur traders.

There are several places in downtown where you can linger by the riverside atop the docks that once made up much of the city's waterfront. Stop by the Sixth Street Viewing Dock, where a raised viewing platform, as well as a fishing dock, enables you to gaze out at the massive Astoria-Megler Bridge, stretching for more than 4 miles across the mouth of the river. Also keep an eye out for sea lions. The best way to see the waterfront is aboard the restored 1913 streetcar operated by Astoria Riverfront Trolley (tel. 503/325-8790; http://homepage.mac.com/cearl/trolley). This trolley operates daily from noon to 7pm between Memorial Day and Labor Day and on a limited schedule other months. Rides are $1.

The Astoria waterfront is rapidly turning into a shoreline of waterfront condos and hotels, but you can still catch a glimpse of the old days on the waterfront on the east end of town at Pier 39, 100 39th St. (tel. 503/325-2502; www.pier39-astoria.com). Originally built in 1875, this cannery was home to Bumble Bee Seafoods, which was founded here in Astoria. Today the old cannery is the largest and oldest building on the waterfront, and inside you'll find displays on the cannery's history. The pier is also home to a brewpub and a coffeehouse. On the breakwater adjacent to Pier 39, sea lions can often be seen and heard.

Right in downtown Astoria, you'll find one of the most unusual wineries in the state. Shallon Winery, 1598 Duane St. (tel. 503/325-5978; www.shallon.com), specializes in fruit wines, but it is the unique whey wines that are winemaker Paul van der Veldt's greatest achievement. The Cran du Lait, made with local cranberries and whey from the Tillamook cheese factory, is surprisingly smooth and drinkable. Also look for the amazing chocolate-orange wine, a thick nectar that will make a chocoholic of anyone.

If you'd like to see what local artists are up to, stop by the gallery of Astoria Visual Arts, 453-A 11th St. (tel. 503/325-4589; www.astoriaarts.com), a nonprofit arts organization. For more regional art, visit the RiverSea Gallery, 1160 Commercial St. (tel. 503/325-1270; www.riverseagalleryastoria.com). At Lunar Boy Gallery, 1133 Commercial St. (tel. 866/395-1566; www.lunarboygallery.com), you'll find a truly bizarre selection of art derived from the worlds of graphic design, cartoons, and animated films. Adagio, 1174 Commercial St. (tel. 503/338-4825), an unusual high-end import store with a very eclectic selection, is also well worth a stop.

The goonies in Astoria

Call me an intellectual snob, but I had never heard of The Goonies before I visited the Oregon Film Museum, 732 Duane St. (www.oregonfilmmuseum.org), housed in the old Clatsop County Jail across from the Flavel House and administered by the Clatsop Historical Society. I now know that this 1985 film is something of a cult classic for kids, and that parts of it were filmed in Astoria. This ingenious little museum allows you to make short films of yourself (or selves) using three different Goonie-type sets; the museum will send you a video download of your film. So far, about 30 movies have been filmed in Oregon, and you’ll find information and clips of some of them here, plus general information on the movie-making business. What is a gaffer, anyway? Half of the building is not a stage set but the real cells used in the Clatsop County Jail—and in The Goonies movie. Kids 8 and older, and particularly those who have seen The Goonies, might kick a kick out of this place. Admission is $6 for adults, $2 for ages 6 to 17. Hours are October through April daily 11am to 4pm, May through September daily 10am to 5pm.

The North Coast

Starting right at the Columbia River, the border between Oregon and Washington, Oregon’s North Coast extends down to Neskowin, close to Lincoln City. This stretch of the coast is backed by the Cascade Range, a line of low (but snowy in winter) mountains that you have to pass over to reach the Pacific. Because it can be easily reached from Portland and I-5, the North Coast is one of the most visited parts of the Oregon coast. There is no end of dramatic sea-scenery and long, white-sand beaches here, but there’s also history, for the explorers Lewis and Clark rafted down the Columbia in 1805 and set up their winter camp at Fort Clatsop, near present-day Astoria. And Astoria itself is the oldest settlement this side of the Mississippi.

Fort Clatsop–Lewis & Clark National Historic Park

5 miles S of Astoria

Essentials

Getting ThereFrom Astoria, head south on U.S. 101 and follow signs.

Visitor InformationThe park’s visitor center (www.nps.gov/lewi; tel. 503/861-2471) is open year-round, mid-June to Labor Day daily 9am to 6pm; Labor Day to mid-June daily 9am to 5pm. Here you’ll find interpretive displays, a good bookstore, and park rangers who can provide information on nearby attractions, hiking trails, and other parks.

“Ocian in view! O! The joy!” William Clark wrote in his journal as he stood on a spit of land just south of present-day Astoria in the fall of 1805. He was feeling exultant after the arduous journey he’d undertaken with Meriwether Lewis and the Corps of Discovery, traveling over 2,500 miles west from St. Louis, across the northern plains, over the Rockies, and down the Columbia River to the Pacific. They had achieved their goal and fulfilled Thomas Jefferson’s mandate to find a passageway to the west. But Clark had yet to deal with the weather on the northern Oregon coast. After building Fort Clatsop, where the Corps spent the winter, Clark wrote, “O! How horrible is the day waves brakeing with great violence against the shore . . . all wet and confined to our shelters.” Throughout that long winter, there were only 5 days when it didn’t rain.

An accurate replica of their shelter, a log stockade which they named Fort Clatsop after the local Clatsop Indians who had befriended them, is what you’ll see at this national park. Though archaeologists have never been able to pinpoint the exact location of Fort Clatsop, this replica was built within a few yards of where they believe the original fort stood. The design was based on notes and sketches in William Clark’s journal.

It’s not a large fort. It was built quickly, and it’s very basic, with wooden gates at either end and two rows of small, adjoining cabins facing each other across a central courtyard (which would have been mud instead of the bark chips that are there now), and it provides a glimpse of what life was like for these now-legendary explorers during that endlessly wet winter more than 200 years ago. Sacagawea, the 16-year-old Shoshone woman who made the trek with French-Canadian Toussaint Charbonneau and their infant son, occupied the first cabin to your right upon entering. Lewis and Clark shared the cabin next to them. The Corps slept about eight men to a cabin on the other side. These bare, unfinished cabins had an open firepit at one end with a flue for the smoke, hand-hewn wooden beds, and not much else. (You’ll appreciate the luxury of a warm dry bed and a hot shower after a visit here.) From mid-June through Labor Day, park rangers clad in period clothing give demonstrations of some of the daily activities that took place at the fort, including flintlock use, buckskin preparation, and candle making.

A path leads down from the fort to a nearby canoe launch area. The explorers traveled south from Fort Clatsop as far as present-day Seaside—where they boiled seawater to make salt and marveled at a beached whale (Sacagawea insisted on accompanying the men to see it)—and north to Cape Disappointment in Washington State. Both of these sites are part of the Lewis and Clark Historical Park, as is the 6.5-mile Fort to Sea Trail, which ends in Seaside. Over on the Washington side of the Columbia, there are two installations by artist Maya Lin that were commissioned as part of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial.

On the short trail from the visitor center to the fort, you’ll pass a bronze statue of Sacagawea with her baby on her back. This is a long-overdue tribute to the young Shoshone woman who traveled with the expedition as an unpaid guide and interpreter. She was all of 16 and had given birth just 3 months before the Corps of Discovery set off. Our ideas about “history” and history makers have changed drastically over the last couple of decades. The Native Americans who inhabited the coastal regions of the Northwest had a rich and long-evolved culture of their own that preceded the arrival of Lewis and Clark by thousands of years. But however you view their achievements, Lewis and Clark and the men—and woman—who accompanied them, made an incredible journey through an area previously unknown to whites, and their arrival at this spot on the Oregon coast in 1805 marks the beginning of a new era in the settlement of the West.

92343 Fort Clatsop Rd. (off U.S. 101, 5 miles southwest of Astoria). www.nps.gov/lewi. tel. 503/861-2471. Admission $3 adults, free for children 15 and under. Mid-June to Labor Day daily 9am–6pm; Labor Day to mid-June daily 9am–5pm.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.