It’s easy to see how water shapes the land. Water has been called the most powerful element because it resists nothing and can wear down rock. A river like the Columbia shapes human lives, too. How about a trip that explores how the river has influenced human life? You can drive from Vancouver to the coast, and back to Portland in a day, and enjoy two states on one tank of gas.
To the Coast through Washington
Ridgefield, WA National Wildlife Refuge (off I-5 near Longview)
Begin your day with French Toast, a breakfast burrito, or vegetable omelet at the Country Café, off the I-5 interchange at Ridgefield. They open at 6:30 a.m., so arrive early and enjoy a sit down meal, or if you can’t wait to begin your adventure get breakfast to go. Then head for the refuge at Ridgefield. Although it shelters raccoons, skunks, coyotes, and hawks, be alert for marsh animals, such as geese, cranes, ducks, herons, beaver, and river otter. Wetland wildlife and “wapato,” a bulblike water plant used for food, fed Indians here centuries ago. Drive around the refuge to see what it offers. Go to the River “S” Unit (RVS) for the auto tour route, a one-way 4.2 mile loop on a graveled road. The refuge is open daily to vehicles during daylight hours and costs $3.00 for a passenger vehicle or motorcycle.
Grays River, WA Historic Bridge (WA-4 West)
Next, see how the river can bring people together to solve a problem. Visit the Grays River Bridge, built in 1905. It’s the oldest covered bridge in the Pacific Northwest and the only one in Washington. Although covered bridges once helped farmers drive their animals over water, the Grays River bridge had another use. Tidal currents in Grays River, a tributary of the Columbia, kept farmers from crossing in their wagons, except at low tide. Dairy products must reach markets fast, and the bridge made that possible. In 1989, this popular landmark was refitted with steel to carry modern traffic, and will support 15 tons. Although there are size restrictions for larger vehicles, you can drive your car over and through this one lane wooden covered bridge.
Ilwaco, WA and Cape Disappointment State Park (Hwy 101)
Continue west for a look at the river’s ruthless side. Winken, Blinken, and Nod may have sailed in a wooden shoe, but coastal history at the mouth of the Columbia is no lullaby. Although the river has been tamed by locks and dams, its wild nature still rules the bar, where outgoing currents crash headlong with incoming tides. This is one of the most treacherous river bars in the world, earning the name “the graveyard of the Pacific.” Since the 1700s, 2,000 ships and 700 lives have been lost near Ilwaco, which is just inside the river’s mouth.
Pick up a map at the Cape Disappointment park office. Then get out and stretch your legs on one of the park’s hiking trails. Although Captain John Meares named the cape in 1788, when he didn’t find a Northwest Passage here, the park and its friendly staff won’t disappoint you. In addition to common shorebirds, you may sight ospreys, snipes, or swans. Don’t miss the park’s two beautiful lighthouses. The one at North Head is a Coast Guard working lighthouse with a beacon that’s visible for 18 miles. Coast Guard rules let people seven years and older climb the narrow winding stairs to the top of the lighthouse. No flip-flop sandals are allowed in the lighthouse, but sandals with a strap are OK. Take your camera for photos of waves shattering at the feet of pine topped ocean cliffs.
Pick up lunch or bring a pre-packed lunch to enjoy at the picnic tables at the North Jetty. For restaurant meals, try the 42nd Street Café in Long Beach, 3.1 miles north of Ilwaco. Prices are reasonable, and they offer many cuisines including Mediterranean, New Orleans, and Southwest.
Return from the Coast through Oregon
Columbia River Maritime Museum, Astoria, OR (US-30 East)
The Greek symbol for water is a triangle standing on one tip, like a Yield sign. So yield to your curiosity, and take in the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria. What kind of training do you need to work for the Coast Guard? What is gill netting and why should we care? How is a river-bar pilot different from a river-barge pilot?
To answer these and other questions, check the museum’s multi media displays about people who’ve sailed the Columbia since before Astoria was settled in 1811. Exhibits show how the river created commercial industry in this area; they also memorialize ships lost on the bar: The Iowa, Laurel, Admiral Benson, and Galena, among others.
Kids love the museum’s model towboat wheelhouse, where they can test their skill moving freight on the river. To watch them is to see how water stimulates imagination and shapes the work of our lives.
Next, enjoy a view of the river and a delicious meal at the Ship Inn Restaurant and Family Pub. The restaurant offers fish, chowders, vegetarian dishes, and cheeses. Half and full-size servings are available, as well as senior and child specials.
To get back to Portland, start on the US-30 East and make your way to the 1-5 South via Washington 432E. The return takes just under two hours.
What & Where:
Country Café (6370 Pioneer St, Ridgefield, WA; 360-887-8201)
Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge (WA-501 & N Main Ave, Ridgefield, WA; 360-887-4106)
Cape Disappointment State Park (Located two miles southwest of Ilwaco, Wash. in Pacific County; 360-902-8844)
42nd Street Café (4201 Pacific Way, Seaview, WA; 360-642-2323)
Columbia River Maritime Museum (1792 Marine Dr, Astoria, OR; 503-325-2323)
Ship Inn Restaurant and Family Pub (One Second St, Astoria, OR; 503-325-0033)
To Ridgefield: From Portland or Vancouver, take I-5 North to Ridgefield, Exit 14. From Exit 14, on Pioneer Street, go three miles west into Ridgefield and take a left on S. 9th Avenue or Hillhurst Road. The refuge entrance road is located .7 miles up the hill on the right side of the road.
To Grays River Bridge: Exit Ridgefield and resume travel on I-5 North. Take Exit 36 to merge onto WA-432 West toward Long Beach/Longview. Stay left where Nichols Ave. splits in Longview. Turn left at Ocean Beach Hwy/WA-4. Drive about an hour and a half on WA 4 West. There are two turnoffs to the left for Loop Road. Take the second Loop Road turnoff-marked with a sign for the bridge-and drive three miles.
To Cape Disappointment State Park: Get back on WA-4 West at Grays River, and drive toward the coast. Go straight onto US-101. Turn left at US-101-ALT. Turn right at US 101. Continue on Spruce Street West. Turn left on 2nd Ave. Southwest. Enter the park on Robert Gray Drive.
To the Maritime Museum in Astoria: Follow Robert Gray Drive out of Cape Disappointment in Washington. Stay to the right to pick up 101 South. Cross the Megler Bridge into Oregon. Turn left at West Marine Drive/US-30 in Astoria. Turn left at Commercial Street/US-30 East and continue to 1792 Marine Drive.
To return to Portland: Begin on Marine Drive/ US-30 East to WA-432E to the 5-South.
•Prioritize what you want to see.
•Know your car’s gas mileage.
•Take a sweater and hat to the coast.
•Take binoculars and camera.
•Pack a lunch to save money, and enjoy a picnic along the way.
Catherine Crawford is a former technical writer, editor, and course materials developer for high-tech industries. She has taught college English at the four-year degree level, and published two award-winning chapbooks of poetry. She lives and works as an editor in Vancouver, Washington.