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CAMPING THE COLUMBIA
by M.D. and Julie Johnson
The mother of northwestern rivers offers a multitude of outdoor recreational opportunities
Less than 100 yards behind me stood the awesome and mysterious rock pillars of “Stonehenge.” Before me, the mighty Columbia River, flush with fish, coursed past lush peach orchards. Cliff walls etched with weathered petroglyphs watched over the swirling waters. Beyond the northern bank of the river lay the high, arid lands of eastern Washington. It was, we decided, truly the best of all worlds.
Modern travelers certainly aren’t the first to take advantage of the benefits and the beauty offered by the Columbia River. With headwaters far to the north in British Columbia, the river first provided sustenance, as well as a means of transportation, for Native American tribes residing in what are now the states of Washington and Oregon. These peoples included the Chinook, Multnomah, Wahkiakum and Cathlamet. More than a few towns, cities, counties and waterways throughout the Pacific Northwest owe their names to these early inhabitants.
While Lewis and Clark were the first white men to journey to the Columbia from the east, another wanderer, Captain Robert Gray, actually entered the river in May of 1792. Crossing the treacherous Columbia River bar in his ship, not surprisingly named the Columbia, Gray traveled just a short distance upstream from the river’s mouth to a point, some say, not far from the present town of Cathlamet. For the ever-increasing number of visitors to the Columbia during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, primitive camping, not generally a pleasant experience due in large part to the Pacific Northwest’s reputation for rain, wasn’t an option.
Today, however, outdoor enthusiasts come to the Columbia, despite the sometimes inclement weather, because of the region’s unparalleled beauty and the list of natural wonders that exist nowhere else but along the shores of what many consider one of the most incredible rivers on the planet. Camping opportunities are plentiful along the Columbia from the point where it enters the United States in northern Stevens County, Washington, downstream to the estuary near Astoria, Oregon.
HEART OF COLUMBIA
Along upper river impoundments, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake, an immense body of water created by the construction in 1941 of the famed Grand Coulee Dam, campers will find a variety of facilities. These range from mom and pop “Jellystone Park”-esque sites complete with a concession stand and optional warm-water swimming pool to more primitive, some would say desolate, boat-in options located along the lakeshore, tailor-made for a backpacking tent, two-burner stove and an aluminum boat. But in my opinion, the real heart of the outdoor recreation opportunity and potential on the Columbia lies between its confluence with the Snake River and the Pacific.
This stretch offers campers convenient access to Washington and Oregon, thanks to several bridges that, in and of themselves, are noteworthy attractions. Here, visitors will find topographical diversity ranging from high desert to lush rain forest, and everything in between. This particular segment of the Columbia features not one, but two national forests — Washington’s Gifford Pinchot, which covers more than 1.3 million acres and includes that early 1980s newsmaker, Mount Saint Helens, and Oregon’s million-acre Mount Hood National Forest. Finally, there’s the Columbia’s estuary, an environment rich in wildlife and outdoor options.
This particular section of the lower Columbia, on the Washington side, is well suited for those just passing through or simply looking for interesting day trips, thanks to the area’s several smaller attractions. The 280-acre Sacajawea State Park and interpretive center, named for the Native American woman who guided the Lewis and Clark expedition, is located at the confluence of the Columbia and Snake, just a short drive east of Pasco.
Boaters and anglers will find this stretch of the river very user-friendly, with no fewer than a dozen launch facilities (a two-lane ramp can be found at Sacajawea State Park) located between North Richland and the confluence. For birding enthusiasts there’s the 3600-acre McNary National Wildlife Refuge, just minutes from downtown Kennewick.
TO THE DESCHUTES
The scenery from the mouth of the Snake downstream to Oregon’s Deschutes River, reminds me of the Wizard of Oz, when the movie changes from black-and-white to color. The high, rocky cliffs and breaks that line both sides of the river are stark, resembling a black-and-white photo. In direct contrast, below the cliffs is the color of riverside peach orchards and agricultural undertakings, as well as the occasional waterfront yard and garden.
Riverside camping in this section can be a simple, yet complex undertaking. The Columbia River shoreline on both the Washington and Oregon sides, from the Snake to the Deschutes, can be owned by one or more individuals or entities, ranging from a local farmer to the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or any of a dozen other services or corporations. Campers can find short-term facilities at both the McNary and John Day dams. The dams offer interesting tours in addition to the opportunity to rest and relax for a time.
Fortunately, there are several places along this stretch of the Columbia where campers need not wonder about ownership or whether or not they’re camping in someone’s backyard. Located on the Washington side, not far from the town of Paterson, is Crow Butte State Park. Crow Butte offers both full hookup and primitive sites, as well as a boat ramp, moorage, group camping and shelters. The Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge is the proverbial stone’s throw away, as is some of the best walleye fishing to be found anywhere in the western states. For those who enjoy fine wines, the Mercer Ranch Vineyards and Columbia Crest Winery are just minutes from the state park.
For those who travel west along Washington’s very scenic Highway 14 from Crow Butte, it’s a short drive to magical Maryhill State Park. The park sits on the shores of the river, complete with a modern boat ramp and access to what many consider to be the Northwest’s premier walleye fishery. It’s a must for serious anglers. But Maryhill’s proximity to a pair of unusual attractions is what sets it apart. Overlooking the park is a full-scale replica of Stonehenge built in the early 1900s by land baron Sam Hill. The replica was constructed as a tribute to those Klickitat County veterans who served and died in World War I, and is recognized as the nation’s first such memorial. Nearby the Maryhill Museum of Art features among other pieces, an extensive collection of sculptures by Auguste Rodin.
From Hat Rock State Park (day-use only; no camping, but the fishing’s fantastic) near Hermiston, downstream to the Deschutes, travelers moving west on Oregon’s Interstate 84 have their choice of several highway-based RV campgrounds, including private facilities at Boardman and Arlington. Popular, too, is a large, gravel area located between the Interstate and the river near the town of Rufus. Primarily a walleye fishing camp in spring and fall, the Rufus location also provides a fine resting-sunbathing-swimming spot.
While the whole of the Deschutes River, designated both a national and state scenic waterway, provides outdoor opportunities aplenty, the Deschutes River State Recreation Area near its meeting with the Columbia is most attractive to campers traveling Interstate 84. This place is all about water-based recreation, be that fishing, canoeing, tubing, or just soaking in the Deschutes’ cool, green water.
ESCHUTES TO PORTLAND
Arriving at the section of the Columbia between the Deschutes River and the Portland/Vancouver metropolitan area, campers are faced with a dilemma. Simply, there’s so much to see and do, little time is left for sitting ’round camp, let alone sleeping. It’s here that the state of Oregon truly begins to strut her natural stuff, beginning with Mayer State Park and the wondrous Governor Tom McCall Wildflower Preserve, a wildflower refuge maintained by the Nature Conservancy, both located just west of The Dalles.
West of Mayer, campers can rest for the evening at Memaloose State Park. At Hood River, travelers officially enter the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, where they’ll find additional day-use and overnight facilities, including Seneca Fouts, Wygant, Starvation Creek, and Lindsey Creek state parks (all day-use). Viento State Park features electric and primitive overnight sites, as does nearby Ainsworth State Park.
After stopping at Bonneville Dam for tours of the dam and the nearby fish hatchery, where visitors can see and photograph white sturgeon in excess of 6 feet in length, it’s off to see northern Oregon’s natural pride and joy, Multnomah Falls. At 620 feet, Multnomah holds the distinction of being the fourth highest waterfall in the United States. In Multnomah’s shadow, a quartet of falls (Latourell, Shepperd’s Dell, Wahkeena and Bridal Veil) offer a refreshing mist and for many, the photographic opportunity of a lifetime. Before entering the eastern suburbs of Portland, a quick stop at Crown Point and the Vista House provide a breathtaking view of the gorge, upriver and down.
In the same section of river, Washington-side campers can plug in at Horsethief Lake State Park located across from The Dalles, or at Beacon Rock State Park below Bonneville Dam. Of special note is Beacon Rock’s mile-long winding trail, which stretches from the foot of this impressive natural monument to the summit, where, like at Crown Point, climbers not bothered by heights can enjoy a view of the river below and the outskirts of Portland and Vancouver to the east. Forest lovers might want to investigate the camping options available in the southern, river-bordering portion of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Good choices include the Oklahoma and Moss Creek campgrounds between White Salmon and Carson, and the Panther Creek and Little Soda Springs facilities north of Carson.
CITY TO SEA
The final section of the Columbia, which stretches between the Portland/Vancouver metropolitan area and the Pacific Ocean, is, for many, the most enjoyable, and yet annually sees fewer visitors, campers included, than do the other portions. Upriver from the estuary, island camping is a popular pastime for those who enjoy combining their love of boating with their need for propane and nylon.
Sand islands near the towns of Woodland and Kalama in Washington are favorite locations, as are a handful downriver on both the Washington and Oregon sides. Boaters take heed, though. In the words of Ed Iman, a 40-year veteran of what he calls “The Big Creek” and operator of Trophy Columbia River Sportfishing of Boring, Oregon, “There are days when I’d run the river in a rowboat, and there’s days when the Queen Mary isn’t big enough.” Remember, it’s a big river, and not one prone to forgiveness.
A better option for most campers along this lower run of the river is to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground, or at the very least, on the sand. Fortunately, there are plenty of places to do just that as one leaves the metropolitan area behind and heads toward the coast. For those traveling in Washington, the favorite is Fort Canby State Park. Located at the southern end of the Long Beach Peninsula, Fort Canby holds two of the Northwest’s most picturesque lighthouses, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, and Long Beach, which, at 28 miles, is touted as the world’s longest beach. Across the mouth of the river, Fort Canby’s sister, Fort Stevens provides yet another way station for travelers looking to put down roots in the sand on the Oregon side.
Sandy beaches, rocky shores, wide expanses of water, thickly wooded forests, dry plains, and fruited fields dot the journey along the mighty Columbia, providing a cornucopia of camping and outdoor recreational activities. Dozens of state parks and other accommodating facilities await the riverside adventurer. Whether you trace its length to fish, hike, bike or photograph its majestic beauty, you’ll find what you’re looking for at this wonderful end of the world.
WHEN YOU GO
Websites featuring state parks in Washington and Oregon are excellent places to begin researching a camping trip along the Columbia River. The Great Outdoor Recreation Pages is a clearinghouse for outdoor recreation information. A great source for Columbia Gorge information comes courtesy the Columbia River Gorge Visitor’s Association.