From the first moment we saw Astoria, we were captivated. It’s a picturesque town, with hills of colorful homes overlooking a Victorian era downtown and working waterfront. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to describe the town as a miniature San Francisco.
With beautiful natural surroundings, plenty of outdoor recreation, seafood right off the boats, a wonderful farmers’ market, craft beer, and friendly folks (and only 10,000 of them), I think—“oh yeah, this would be an easy place to live.” And then I remember that Astoria gets an insane amount of rainfall each year.
This is a wild place, at the confluence of the mouth of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean. The weather was tame and sunny while we were there. But it’s not always that way, as Lewis and Clark would attest. This is the place they ended up in their epic journey down the Columbia River in November of 1805. I’ll bet they would have enjoyed their stay more had they arrived in summer instead of winter.
With the arrival of Lewis and Clark, Astoria became the first American settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. Of course, they weren’t the first people here—the first were the Chinook Indians, who had villages up and down both sides of the Columbia. I’ve often thought that if I were to be plunked down somewhere and forced to survive off the land, I’d choose the Pacific Northwest. With an abundance of salmon, shellfish easy for the taking, and bountiful harvests of berries, there would be plenty to eat.
From the Chinook to the Coast Guard
Astoria has a rich maritime history. Here, the convergence of the mighty Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean creates one of the most treacherous harbor entrances in the world. With 2,000 vessels wrecked along the coast and 700 souls lost, this dangerous stretch of water has long been referred to as the “Graveyard of the Pacific.”
To enter or leave the Columbia River, any ship over 100 feet must relinquish the helm to a bar pilot. This elite group of ship captains undergoes rigorous testing to qualify for the job—one of their many exams includes drawing a nautical chart of the bar from memory.
The Columbia River Bar Pilots credit a one-eyed Chinook Indian chief named Concomly as the first bar pilot. A skilled navigator and savvy trader, Chief Concomly would paddle a dugout canoe across the bar, providing ships safe passage in exchange for blankets, fishhooks, and tools.
Today, the river bar pilots use speedy pilot boats and sometimes helicopters to board the ships—both involve swaying rope ladders and a risky descent (and ascent). Meanwhile, the Coast Guard is always standing ready to rescue boats of any size that run into trouble on the bar.
For a fascinating immersion in the maritime history of the Columbia, don’t miss the excellent Columbia River Maritime Museum. We spent half a day there and were completely captivated by the history of the river, the salmon fisheries, the bar pilots, and the Coast Guard. Watching the videos of the bar pilots and the Coast Guard in action is terrifying.
More Cool Stuff in Astoria
• The Waterfront: Interesting historic buildings, breweries, cool shops, fisheries, and the maritime museum are all located along the scenic waterfront. We walked five miles of trails along the water, and hopped on the historic red trolley for a ride back just so we could listen to the entertaining conductor regale us with the history of the waterfront.
• Northwest Wild Seafood Market: This was a fabulous find! It’s a little hole-in-the wall seafood market with excellent seafood and a beautiful dock with a view of the Columbia and the Astoria-Megler Bridge. We enjoyed a bowl of steamer clams, and took home smoked tuna, fresh salmon, and fresh Pacific cod.
• Sunday Market: Covering three city blocks in the attractive Victorian downtown area of Astoria, the Sunday Market offers up local produce, arts and crafts, and music from 10 till 3. If you’re there in early June, expect lots and lots of asparagus. I wanted to bring home the miniature goat at the goat soap stand, but Eric said no.
• Fort George Brewery: Astoria boasts half-a-dozen craft breweries; that’s a lot for a small town, but hey, we’re not judging. We chose Fort George out of the bunch, and loved everything about it—the upstairs location with a view of the waterfront; the organic, local food offerings (we enjoyed delicious chop salads with grilled chicken); and the tasty beer. As always, the IPA’s and the stouts were our favorites.
• Blue Scorcher Bakery: In the same building as Fort George Brewery, the Blue Scorcher Bakery brews excellent organic coffee and knows how to make perfect almond croissants. We started off our Sunday market tour here, and also treated ourselves the morning of laundry day. It always helps to have a treat on laundry day.
• The Astoria Column: Built in 1926, the column is the tallest point in Astoria, at 660 feet above sea level. There’s a steep winding staircase to the top, and it’s claustrophobic and dark and dank inside. The views are great, but honestly, I think you can see just about as much from the viewpoints near the parking lot. It’s worth paying the $5 fee to get into the parking area, but I wouldn’t bother making the trek to the top of the column again.
About the campground: We spent five nights at nearby Ft. Stevens State Park, just across the bridge from Astoria. The campground is gorgeous, with five miles of hiking trails and nine miles of biking trails that lead to the beach, the 100-year old wreck of the Peter Iredale, and to the historic military fort. We loved being able to bike everywhere in the park on dedicated trails.
Fort Stevens guarded the mouth of the Columbia River from the Civil War through World War II. There’s a small museum, and an interesting short tour of the guardhouse with memorabilia from WW II.
This is an enormous campground, with at least 500 campsites. We loved our site in loop N; we lucked out with a corner site with neighbors only on one side and a big grassy lawn area on the other. There are many sites in the campground that would undoubtedly be more private, but would also be unbearably dark and dreary on a rainy day. In early to mid-June, the mosquitoes are frightening—there are lots of wetlands for them to breed. We weren’t bothered during the day, but come dusk, we were safely inside. All of the sites are paved, with water and electric hookups (some loops have sewer), and Verizon coverage is uniformly terrible.