Riding the Lewis and Clark Trail in Oregon
(This article Riding the Lewis and Clark Trail: Commemorating the 200th Anniversary on Two Wheels was published in the July 2003 issue of Rider magazine.)
At this place we had wintered and remained from the 7th of Decr. 1805 to this day and have lived as well as we had any right to expect, and we can say that we were never one day without three meals of some kind a day either pore Elk meat or roots, notwithstanding the repeated fall of rain which has fallen almost constantly.
From the Journal of William Clark, March 23, 1806
Rain falling constantly? Even in 1806, Oregon was developing a reputation as a wet place. However, in the summer months it’s a great place to ride, and now you can stop at restaurants instead of shooting elk for your meal as you retrace part of the route of Lewis and Clark.
In 1803 President Jefferson called the expedition from the Northeast to explore the uncharted West “The Corps of Discovery.” It was led by Jefferson’s secretary, Meriwether Lewis, and Lewis’ friend, William Clark. One particularly nice ride out of Portland, Oregon, retraces a latter part of their journey. The ride loops out to the site where the expedition completed its mission to reach the Pacific Ocean and returns to Portland, retracing Lewis and Clark’s path along the Columbia River. The ride traverses three distinct environments: the coast mountain range heavily forested with Douglas fir and western red cedar; the seaport town of Astoria where the Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean; and the run along the Columbia, tracing in reverse the route Lewis and Clark took almost 200 years ago.
Along the way you encounter many of the same sights and views as did Lewis and Clark. You can also explore wildlife refuges, seaport towns and quaint 19th-century settlements while enjoying some of the best motorcycle roads in the West.
The entire loop is only 200 miles, but seems much farther given the diversity of the ride, of which the weather is a key aspect. It is not unusual to have a hot, sunny 95-degree day in Portland, but encounter overcast, cool 65-degree weather on the coast as we did. During the summer in Northwest Oregon it’s important to plan around these temperature variations with your riding gear selection in order to stay both comfortable and protected.
…The party has killed 155 Elk and 20 Deer since we came to this place. The party has now among them 338 pair of good moccasins. The most of them are strong and made out of Elk skins.
March 20, 1806, Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse
We pulled out of Portland at 8 a.m., not on foot or in canoes as did Lewis and Clark, but on a Honda Valkyrie Tourer and BMW K100. This part of the route begins on Oregon Highway 26, the main arterial to the beach from Portland, where after just 15 miles we jump onto Highway 47 and head up into the wilderness. This path to the coast is all but forgotten by most. Its twisty turns and lack of civilization result in its avoidance by most heading to the beach. The first, largest, and really only town on this route is Vernonia, population 1,800.
Just past it you turn onto Highway 202 and come to the Jewell Meadows Wildlife Area, 2,000 acres managed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. One of the reasons for the location of Lewis and Clark’s winter campsite in 1805 was the abundance of Roosevelt elk in the area, which provided not only food but also much of their clothing and footwear. This wildlife refuge now provides a protected habitat for elk and other game animals. Elk are by far the most majestic of the local inhabitants, with the bulls reaching 900 pounds and carrying huge racks of antlers. Although the elk are habituated to humans and will allow you to observe them from a close distance, you don’t want to approach them—not even CE-approved armor would repel those antlers.
We are now in plain view of the Pacific Ocean, the waves rolling, and the surf roaring very loud…we are at an end of our Voyage to the Pacific Ocean and as soon as discoveries necessary are made, that we shall return a short distance up the River and provide our Selves with Winter Quarters.
November 16, 1805, Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse
Leaving the wildlife refuge, we began the gentle climb up over the Pacific Coast mountain range. The temperature drops as we crest the coast range and drop into the cooler marine environment, necessitating a quick stop to zip up our jacket vents. This section of road is a rider’s paradise, with many sweeping curves leading up and over the 1,500-foot summit. The BMW, being a bit lighter and more agile than the Valkyrie, was in its element on this stretch. However, both bikes handled well, with the combination of quick throttle twists and gravity-aided braking from the slight uphill grade providing instant control as we cruise through this segment. Despite the road limiting you to 35-45 mph, you feel as though you are flying through an evergreen paradise, weaving through the mist and under lush forest canopy as you broach the summit.
After winding through these forest roads for 75 miles or so, you emerge at the seacoast. Just before you round the bend and actually see the vast expanse of the lower Columbia and the Pacific Ocean, your nose alerts you to the pungent unmistakable odor of the sea. The almost instantaneous transition from thickly forested mountain ecology to the aquatic marine environment never ceases to amaze, and is particularly immediate on this route where the wonderful aroma of the ocean slams into you suddenly like the windlash from a passing truck.
We all moved in to our new Fort, which our officers name Fort Clatsop after the name of the Clatsop nation of Indians who live nearest to us.
December 25, 1805, Sergeant John Ordway
As you arrive at the coast and slip into the back door of Astoria, a right at the first stop sign takes you up to the Astoria Column. Built in 1926 by the Great Northern Railroad and the descendents of John Jacob Astor, the founder of Astoria, the entire outside of the Column is covered in murals depicting key events and individuals in the discovery and settlement of the Northwest. The Column rests on a 595-foot hill overlooking the mouth of the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean, with 164 spiral steps to the top of the 125-foot-high structure. The view from the top is spectacular for 360 degrees, especially around a bit but the massive Valkyrie was as steady as a rock.
Once in the state of Washington, we turn east to follow the Lewis and Clark trail along the northern bank of the Columbia River. Although on this leg Lewis and Clark’s expedition traveled by canoe, we elect to stay on the pavement as we put the Pacific Ocean and its infamously wet weather to our backs. Because the Oregon coast experiences 150 percent of the rainfall of Portland, you need to always carry raingear. On this trip we didn’t encounter rain, but past experiences dictate that I always wear waterproof boots to ensure dry feet.
As we continue eastward toward Portland, the ecology changes for the third time. We leave the seashore farther behind and follow the Columbia River and designated Washington State Scenic Highways 401 and 4 that skirt its bank. These extra-wide two-lane roads are beautifully maintained and alternate between deep forests and wide-open vistas just a few feet off the river.
Traveling east on Highway 4, you pass through several small towns carrying Native American-derived names. Skamokowa has developed into a kayaking center along the Columbia and offers grand views and wide sandy beaches at Skamokawa Vista Park. While in town you can get a great sandwich at the combo post office, café, general store, bed and breakfast and kayak rental establishment that is almost the entire town by itself. If you time it right, you can also catch the Classic Car and Motorcycle Show, complete with a barbecue, that occurs here in July.
Forty miles from the Pacific down Highway 4 we next come to the town of Cathlamet, population 600 and the second oldest town in Washington state. Named after the Cathlamet Indian tribe encountered here by Lewis and Clark, the town is set against the forested hills along the Columbia River. Cathlamet has the feeling of a small town of another age with malls and fast-food outlets pleasantly absent. Most of the buildings stem from the turn of the century, including a bed and breakfast located in a restored 1907 home. We pull into Cathlamet to catch the Puget Island Ferry back to Oregon.
The ferry leaves on the hour and we queue up to catch one of the 12 vehicle spots. If you have to wait it’s a blessing, though, giving you time to explore Cathlamet, including the Wahkiakum County Museum and places like the Dock Tavern tucked away in an 1891 building that once housed a roller skating rink upstairs. The ride across the river, although short, is definitely one of the highlights of our trip. The ferry was established in 1925 and will set you back a whopping $2 for your trip across.
Once across the Columbia River, we join Oregon Highway 30 and head east into Portland. Our ride almost over, we contemplate how far we’ve progressed since that expedition of 1805. On a good day they made 15 miles fighting disease, danger and death at every step. We just did a leisurely ride of 200 miles retracing Lewis and Clark’s route from the mouth of the Columbia River to Portland, with the only real danger coming from a few errant pickups and logging trucks.
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson won approval from Congress for a visionary expedition west, an endeavor that would become one of America’s greatest adventures. The Government appropriated $2,500 to fund a group whose mission was to explore the uncharted West. As we retraced this small part of the Corps’ journey, I was just happy that I was able to appropriate a slightly greater amount to fund my Valkyrie upon which I continue to explore.
References and Additional Information:
The Lewis and Clark Expedition and their Journals
Fort Clatsop National Memorial
Guide to S.W. Washington on the Columbia River