Kind of an odd place to summarize, eh? Given the vast array of things to do in this area, you’d think we’d knock it down to a specific city or a specific coast. Alas, we spent several days exploring what amounts to the border area of Washington and Oregon, along the coast, so this is what you get!
Most people know this area as the home of Portland, Oregon. It’s also the home of Vancouver, Washington. If you’re a good soldier (aka loyal reader), you’ll know we recently profiled our stay there at the Red Lion Hotel at the Quay. On top of that, this area is teeming with some of the most beautiful coastline in the world, including Cannon Beach, which you probably know most famously as being in the film The Goonies.
Anyway, before I summarize summaries and then create longer summaries of those summaries, we should probably dive into it, don’t ya think?
Disclaimer status: As noted in every city/state/region report, this is not a tour guide. It’s not a must-see or must-do or must-visit. It’s simply what we did when we were there. If you need a longer version of our standard disclaimer, please see the beginning of this post.
So then, welcome to Washington and Oregon! Specifically, the southwest coastal region of the former and the northwest coastal region of the latter. A lot of it looks like this, and it’s seemingly endless, so be prepared for a lot more of these shots.
We headed to this area from Seattle, which you can read about here. Avoiding the mountain route – that would take us by Mt. Rainier – due to haze, fog, and clouds, we went southwest from the Emerald City and started our coastal journey in Aberdeen, Washington. Unbeknownst to us until the other day, this is the home of Kurt Cobain. We only recognized it as a fairly depressing logging town that has nothing to offer but misery and heartbreak.
After stocking up on essential goods at the local big-box retailer, we jumped on State Highway 105, which eventually merges with U.S. 101. It’s labeled as a scenic route; but honestly, logging has terrorized that entire strip and it’s unfortunately not very scenic anymore. Making our way down the coast, we went over the massive bridge from Washington and into Astoria, Oregon, where U.S. 30 begins. We took that east to the small town of Clatskanie. After that, we hopped back on U.S. 30 into Portland, and then over a bridge and into Vancouver, Washington.
Here are the details:
- Interstate 5 south through the massive metropolitan area surrounding Seattle
- State Highway 105 south at Aberdeen, WA, which joins U.S. 101 at Raymond, WA
- U.S. 30 east at Astoria, OR, all the way to Portland, OR
- Random interstate north across the water to Vancouver, WA
- Various county and state roads in rural Oregon (more on that down below)
We basically turned a 2.5-hour drive from Seattle to Portland into an all-day affair. Because that’s what we do, and we don’t take the interstate anyway unless it’s more or less, absolutely necessary.
As you probably know by now, Red Lion Hotels is a staunch supporter of our “Fabric of America” tour. Due to availability in the high summer season, we were only able to stay in Vancouver, Washington, for a few nights. This gave us a break between Seattle and Vancouver, so we stopped in the aforementioned town of Clatskanie, Oregon, for a two-day stay at a locally-owned hotel.
Our king room at the Red Lion Hotel at the Quay was plush and had plenty of work space, and looked out onto a killer view of the river. It also has all the amenities we need – fast Wi-Fi, refrigerator, coffee maker, coin laundry – as well as plenty of extras. I could have gone for an ottoman for the lounge chair, or an extra work space, but beggars can’t be choosers. Either way, it’s a great alternative to the chaos of Portland, and will allow you to get some small-town charm while also having traffic-less access to all the sights of southern Washington.
The location of the hotel:
100 Columbia St.
Vancouver, WA 98660
Tel: +1 (360) 694-8341
For the couple days we spent in an even calmer area, we chose the town of Clatskanie, Oregon. With a population of 1,700, it’s pretty small but still has the amenities you’ll need when planted somewhere for a bit. The people are great – including the entire staff at our hotel – and we had a good time joshing around with everyone while we were there. It also gave us easier access to the Oregon coast, so we could head over there and reminisce about our childhoods, Goonies-style.
The hotel itself is called the Clatskanie River Inn, and it’s probably one of the nicest locally-owned hotels we’ve ever stayed at. I actually asked the staff if it was recently renovated, and they said it’d been over a decade. That’s just how kept-up the property is. Unbeknownst to us, we got a small suite, complete with a two-person desk/table, as well as a couch and plenty of space to dance or something, if we felt so inclined. (Not sure why there’s no coffee table there, but yeah.) It also sits on a small river, across from a park, and gives you access to most of the town by foot.
The location of the hotel:
600 E. Columbia River Highway
Clatskanie, OR 97106
Tel: +1 (503) 728-9000
Food! One of our best friends in the whole wide world, and this region does not disappoint. We ate all of our meals in either Clatskanie or Vancouver, so that’s what you get. Some came from hotel recommendations, whereas others were scoped out by us or pulled from the brains of unsuspecting locals. Ready?
Ixtapa Family Restaurant: When a Mexican cuisine recommendation comes our way, it usually arrives in some form of, “I know, right? You’d never think there’d be good Mexican food in [enter any city with less than half a million people].” This doesn’t really make sense to us, considering that, while, most immigrants certainly go to big cities, plenty of others end up in small towns across the country. And this is how you get delicious Mexican treats in a place like Clatskanie, Oregon. This is actually across the parking lot from the Clatskanie River Inn, and we absolutely loved it. The menu features Mexican-American classics as well as dishes native to Ixtapa. It’s entirely family owned and operated, with locations in at least Clatskanie and the nearby town of Scappoose.
Colvin’s Pub & Grill: A staple of Clatskanie, this was another one recommended by the folks at our hotel. It sits in the somewhat quiet, historic downtown area, and has been doing things right for decades. One side is a restaurant, and the other side is a full bar where you can also eat if you’d like. We got down to business with mammoth burgers and fried shrimp, washed down with local brews on tap.
Flowers ‘n Fluff and Latte’ Da: These are the two main coffee shops in Clatskanie. Both are also gift shops or trinket stores for tourists and whatnot. We gave ’em both a shot to see who would reign supreme. While they were both good, with great, friendly staff, I’d have to say that the latter has better coffee. However, the former takes the cake on ambiance with its lovely outdoor patio and garden. Either way, you probably can’t go wrong as they have full-service espresso bars with all the basics as well as the foofy concoctions.
Beaches: This riverside restaurant in Vancouver is quite large and was insanely packed when we were there. It was very, very loud inside, and we’d recommend sitting outside if you can. Not only for the peace and quiet, but also because it has great water views. Robbie, our server, was one of the best of the best, and we appreciated shooting nonsense with him and getting his knowledgeable recommendations from the menu. They serve a wide range of food, from pasta to seafood and pizza, and it’s all on-point. The crackle-fried sesame pork appetizer with Thai chili sauce and the fried oysters are the standouts here. So. Good. Also, there’s a smaller location at the Portland airport if you find yourself in need of some good food during a layover.
Steakburger: This old-school burger joint is addressed in Vancouver, but is more specifically in Hazel Dell, which is just north of the city. It’s been around for half a century, and is basically a landmark for the area. Also, it has mini-golf. Score! Pictures of past decades adorn the walls, which is something we love as we can look at the history of the place and see how it was back in the day. I think Ang liked the burgers better than I did. Don’t expect to be wowed: It’s fairly typical 50’s-style fare. I’d go back, but it’s nothing to write home about. Unless you play mini-golf as well, which is always awesome.
Vancouver Pizza Company: We wanted to stay in and work one night, and this was our choice of fulfillment. I never expect the world when ordering delivery pizza in an unknown city, but this was recommended by the front desk and had solid reviews online. So, we pulled the trigger and were therefore rewarded. These guys definitely know how to make a proper pie, complete with chewy crust and burnt edges. Done just right. The salads we got to make ourselves feel better about ordering pizza also did the job, what with the walnuts, feta, and raspberry balsamic. Excellent job, guys.
Gustav’s: German food in Vancouver! You know we had to do it. We arrived fairly early for an early evening feast, and were pleasantly surprised with a happy-hour menu that allowed us to do tastings of a variety of German delights. Most of the bottles and taps are proper German beers as well, which is nice to see considering how it’s usually all the same (Beck’s, etc.) at most “German beer” places. Potato pancakes, meatballs, chicken cordon bleu, all that. It was great to feast on some fairly authentic German food so far away from Germany.
These are in no short supply here. From city and town sights in Portland and Vancouver, to the endless beaches and state parks on the coast, to the Columbia River Gorge and all it has to offer, and on to the well-known mountains that call this region home: Mount St. Helens, Mt. Hood, etc.
As we always say: You can never do it all. Don’t get your underoos in a bunch if we didn’t do what you think we should have, or if we did do things you hate. To each his own! Not to mention considerations like time, ease of access, and everything else we’re doing on this trip. We do, however, welcome your suggestions in the comments. Yay!
Explore the Coast: Oregon and Washington have approximately 4,235 miles of coastline. (I made up that number.) It’s some of the most beautiful coastline in the world, most of it being lush green and full of either jaw-dropping cliffs or sandy beaches. (Except that stretch of the Washington coast that’s been logged to death.) If you use an atlas – which you should and do people even know what an atlas is anymore? – then you’ll probably get a kick out of the Oregon coast on the map. It’s basically a list of state parks and state beaches, all the way down the coastline. There is no shortage. At all. Take your pick!
We even rolled up on one in Washington where you could drive straight to the water, park, and do whatever it is you want to do at the beach. Some are crazy crowded, though, so be forewarned. We about drove the entire coast, and it easily rivals anything you’ll see on the “official” Pacific Coast Highway in California. The weather can be a bit dodgier, but if you go in the summer, you should be okay.
Cannon Beach: And that brings us to Cannon Beach. Famous for being in The Goonies, for being beautiful, for probably being in a bunch of other movies, for being a major tourist destination, and for it’s huge rocks in the water (namely, Haystack Rock), you’ve probably seen it somewhere even if you didn’t know what it was.
There is no doubt that it’s a sight to behold, but it’s also probably not any better than the umpteen hundred miles of coastline that it’s linked to. Most of this area is breathtaking, so don’t feel like you have to dodge overpriced hotels and hordes of tourists just to get a look.
Drive the Back Roads: We mostly always do this, but we went on some simply fantastic back roads while we were in the region. Specifically, the roads that go over and through the mountains between Clatskanie and Cannon Beach, Oregon. You won’t ever hit any towns, which was somewhat aggravating when I was fiending for a Snickers. (You will hit “towns,” but not actual…towns.)
It was worth it, though, as it was nice to be in the country with no one else around. Plenty of ups and downs, ear popping, views of the mountains, etc. Certainly even more fun if you’re in a driver’s car and not a Prius, like we were.
Downtown Vancouver: Despite its growth, Vancouver has a very quaint and not particularly limited historic downtown. There are many blocks of historic buildings – banks, theaters, shops – that provide a nice walk that can go on for longer than you think.
Its central park is also quite a looker, and I personally enjoyed spending time sitting there and watching bumblebees. Because, bumblebees!
Many antique stores also line the streets, so you can get your fix of the vintage and the odd in plenty of locally-owned shops. Vancouver is also home to several breweries, although all of them were either closed when we wanted to visit, or not open to the public. Bah!
Portland: If you really must, you can sit in traffic for a while and head to Portland, with all its fame and hip reputation. We only spent a couple hours there, looking at the historic district and walking along the river.
We hope you enjoy dodging hipsters, hippies, junkies, and tourists, as we did. (Okay, so it’s not all that. Don’t go taking that the wrong way, dear.) But, it’s a big city and its reputation precedes it. If you want some crazy nightlife, galleries, no-sales-tax shopping, and metropolitan flair, then there’s absolutely nothing wrong with going to Portland.
We simply found that big-city chaos didn’t really jibe well with our everlasting, summer-long, and relaxing road trip, so we chose to skip most of PDX in favor of its sibling across the river. We also feel like Portland is a destination in its own right, and demands the type of focus for which our type of road trip doesn’t allow.
We did have to swing by the world’s smallest park, though. Ha! Welcome to Mill Ends Park in Portland.
Stare at the Water: We did a lot of staring at the water. In Portland and Vancouver, we stared at the Columbia River – especially from our prime hotel location at the Red Lion Hotel at the Quay.
In Clatskanie, we stared at the Clatskanie River. On the coast, we stared at the Pacific Ocean. In southern Washington, we stared at a grist mill. We saw running rapids and tidal pools and crashing waves and low tides and serene sheets of glass. It’s quite relaxing, as we’re sure you know. And there’s plenty of it to do in this area, since water is anywhere and everywhere.
Cedar Creek Grist Mill: North of Vancouver and west of Mount St. Helens, you’ll find this hidden gem. Built in 1876, the mill served the surrounding area by cracking and grinding grain into flour and feed. Still in operation today as a historical site, it’s kept up to pristine condition.
The inside of the mill was closed when we were there, but we were able to walk around it, check out the view from the covered bridge next to the mill, and walk up the banks to see how the mill got its feed of water from the rushing river that passes it by.
Not only that, but this particular area has its own micro-climate that basically amounts to a rainforest. It’s entirely different than the area only several miles outside the forest, making it feel as though you’ve entered another world entirely.
Fort Vancouver: This national historic site is directly next to historic downtown Vancouver, Washington. Originally a fur-trading post in the 1800s and regional headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company, this aspect of the fort eventually dwindled as military barracks grew up around it and it became an important strategic outpost for the U.S. Army.
It was essentially a town encapsulated in the fort’s walls, with the army base later spreading out from it.
Today, it’s a national landmark that hosts interpretive tours and possesses a grand stretch of gardens that include many plants and crops that were grown there nearly two centuries ago.
Officers Row: Also next to Fort Vancouver is the famed Officers Row, which is a national historic site in its own right. The row consists of 21 former officers’ homes, most of which are lavish houses with lush yards and more square footage than any one family needs. These were the homes for the military officers stationed at the Vancouver Barracks, and all were constructed between 1846 and 1906.
Today, some are private homes, some are businesses, and some are foundations. All are landmarks and are kept to their historic architecture. Because of this, all the homes are basically the same color, and things can get a bit repetitive after walking down the block for a while. Either way, their good looks are worth a visit. There’s also a museum in one of the homes, but it was closed when we were there.
Astoria, Oregon: Founded in 1811 and incorporated in 1876, Astoria is famous as the coastal, hillside town that lays at the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific Ocean. We were driving through it by default, and just had to stop to see the Goonies house. Astoria is much more than that, full of gorgeous homes and architecture that could have us driving around slowly for hours, gawking and taking pictures.
It’s an alluring city that has escaped the downtrodden look of so many logging towns in the region, partially due to landscape and most likely due to its prime real estate and historic construction. Of course, though, we could only imagine how bonkers the weather here gets in the colder months, as the Columbia River mouth is notorious for its foul, dangerous weather.
We ran through a lot of goodness during our several days in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington, but it’s clear to us that we didn’t even scratch the surface. There are not only tons of outdoor activities and sights here, but also countless historical sights and landmarks that take you back to another time. It would take a very long stay or many additional visits to even get below the surface just a little bit.
We found everyone we ran into to be welcoming and open for a chat, and enjoyed going about our time in a relaxing manner. Even though Portland is a required draw for the area, there are obviously many other reasons to swing through and stay a while. So, why not give it a shot on your next vacation?
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Have you ever been to the Northwest Coast? Did you visit any of the places in our post? Do you have any suggestions for things people should see when they stay in the region? Any other thoughts? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!