The Astoria-Megler Bridge spends most of its 4-mile span connecting Oregon and Washington close to the water before rising 196 feet into the sky like a roller coaster from hell. Heading up the slope, we were either going to die or end up in Astoria, Oregon.
Over Memorial Day weekend, my wife, sister-in-law, and a friend roadtripped down Highway 101 to this quaint town in northwest Oregon. Where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean sits the oldest permanent American settlement on the West Coast. In all that time, it hasn’t grown much, but it has developed a very quirky and endearing personality to go along with its fascinating history. This is the story of how we spent 24 hours in Astoria and didn’t even go to the Goonies house.
I firmly believe that a town’s heart and soul is in its food, so we wasted no time in heading to the highest rated spot in town: Fort George Brewery. It was everything a Northwest brewpub should be. It was in a two-story converted warehouse in downtown Astoria, most of the staff had lumberjack beards, and they had subtle twists on all the PNW staples (including tuna fish and chips and a Filthy Burger worthy of the name).
We then trekked across another bridge out to Fort Stevens State Park. Despite misting rain and a stiff onshore wind, we braved the sandy beach to behold the iron skeleton of the Peter Iredale, a ship that famously ran aground in a storm in 1906 and has been rusting away on the beach ever since.
With the tide in, we couldn’t get very close to the wreck, so we had to settle for taking a few hundred photos (Above: The only one of mine that really turned out. Thanks to Bethany for pointing out the spot where I could capture the reflection in the beach).
After wandering around in the dunes and discovering a neat lean-to made out of driftwood, we wandered inland to Fort Stevens itself. Originally constructed by the Union Army during the Civil War to defend the Columbia River from a Confederate attack from the Pacific, the fort stood guard over the Oregon coast from 1863-1947. To this day, it is the only military fort in the continental United States to be fired on by an enemy during wartime since 1812 — it was shelled in the summer of 1942 by a Japanese submarine.
The fort itself is a maze of concrete bunkers and battery placements that you can explore. It has a haunted quality about it (not counting the very irritated birds nesting in the tunnels) which made it a photographer’s dream come true. We spent a couple of hours wandering the storerooms and machine gun nests where nervous young men used to watch the sea for approaching enemy ships.
We also found some outbuildings in the woods, tangled in blackberry bushes and ferns, with some excellent light for portraits. If you’ve never had your photo taken at a decommissioned military base, you’re missing out.
We capped off our day with some of the best sushi I have had the pleasure to eat in my entire life. Who would’ve thought that such fine food was hiding in Astoria, but Tora Sushi delivered.
The next morning, we ventured out to Astoria’s Sunday farmer’s market. When it comes to markets, Astoria doesn’t pull any punches. Four city blocks were cordoned off and two large parking lots were pressed into service to accommodate the sheer number of booths. There was a mind boggling array of artisan soaps, local produce, knick-knacks, food trucks, and exactly one goat on a leash. Based on the crowd, I can only assume that every single human being in Astoria was in attendance.
Our final stop was an awe-inspiring, but supremely weird local landmark — the Astoria Column. This 125-foot tower sits on a hill overlooking the city and the surrounding countryside. It was build in 1926 (I assume on a dare) in homage to the Trajan Column in Rome and dedicated to John Jacob Astor, who never actually went to the town that bares his name, but whose fur trading business founded the settlement.
Of course, it’s not enough to just look at the column. If you’re going to pay $5 to get in, you have to take a moment to admire the rather problematic mural celebrating the history of westward expansion and climb the 164-step spiral staircase of death to get to the top. Between the bridge and this column, I was starting to think that Astorians are all adrenaline junkies with a penchant for heights. The spiral staircase made me simultaneously dizzy and claustrophobic and there were way too many people packed onto the observation deck for comfort, but the view was phenomenal. From the top, you can see the little Victorian houses of the city set against the backdrop of the bridge and the mighty Columbia to the north and the patchwork of farms along the Lewis and Clark River to the south.
Standing there, looking out over the lush land of the Pacific Northwest, it is easy to see why so many people uprooted their families and risked their lives to get here and stake out a claim in the Oregon Territory. I felt the pull of this place — despite the dreary weather, barking sea lions and the sand in my shoes — and felt the allure that has drawn adventurers to this port outpost for over two hundred years.
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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer and traveler based in Tacoma, WA. When he isn’t going to exotic locales or dreaming about exotic locales, you can find him on Twitter. For exclusive content and non-spam, you can also join the mailing list.