On their final push to and back from the Pacific Ocean, early 19th century explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark forever changed the Pacific Northwest and its inhabitants. Retracing their steps today offers a vivid contrast to the harsh conditions they encountered.
Each bears its own distinct character and relative advantages: Hood River is home to adrenaline-fueled adventurers swigging beer and cider, Astoria plays the colorful madam with a rich history, and Walla Walla has wine, wonderful food and nearby spaces devoted to Native American heritage. At the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute about an hour southwest in Pendleton, Ore., you can trace the tribal genocide hastened by the Corps’ passage, and ultimately celebrate recent years of Native American resurgence.
Pick one, two or all three of these towns, with an eye on the season. Hood River and Astoria are glorious in summer and fall, or if spring is mild. Walla Walla is ideal in spring and fall, but hot in summer. Hood River offers skiing and other snowy adventures on nearby Mount Hood in the cold months, but lend an ear to Clark before braving an Astoria winter.
“ … rained all the last night we are all wet … the wind blew with Such violence that I expected every moment to See trees taken up by the roots … O! how disagreeable is our Situation,” he wrote in his journal on Nov. 28, 1805.
As Oregon residents, my wife, Mica, and I don’t allow a little rain to dampen our travel plans. We watch the weather and look forward to being behind the wheel as the magnificent Columbia River Gorge fills the windshield.
From Portland, it’s just over an hour’s drive east to Hood River, past some glorious scenery. Plan a stop at Multnomah Falls, detour over and back on the aptly named Bridge of the Gods, and break for lunch in Cascade Locks at Brigham Fish Market, where manager Terrie Brigham Price has landed much of the catch.
“I’ve been fishing up and down this river since I was little,” says Price, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
The river represented a formidable danger here when Lewis and Clark’s party first passed through in their canoes in late 1805. In “Undaunted Courage,” author Stephen E. Ambrose describes how Native Americans “gathered by the hundreds along the banks to watch the white men drown themselves …”
They survived the portage, however. Today, three locks and four dams have erased those rapids. The river is now a playground, with kiteboarders and windsurfers racing around, propelled by the breeze.
Like the fast lane? Paddle the White Salmon River’s middle section with Wet Planet Whitewater, where guide Alex Taylor promised we would get plenty wet while running rapids such as Top Drop and Corkscrew. He was right.
Later, unwind those sore muscles with a soak at the Society Hotel in Bingen, which opened in 2019. The rooms are utilitarian, but the complimentary soaking pools and sauna will recharge spent batteries.
If the slow lane is more your speed, point the wheel toward the Hood River Fruit Loop, where the scent of fresh-picked lavender from Hood River Lavender Farms will fill the car, then stop for a bite and the ciders at the Gorge White House. End the day with the Grateful Feast Tasting Experience (beer, cider, wine, pizza and more) and Mount Hood views at Grateful Vineyard.
Or discover just how well craft beer combines with great food at two of Oregon’s best breweries. PFriem Family Brewers has gained a national reputation for its incredible array of Belgian-influenced artisanal beers. Down the street, innovative brewmaster Dan Peterson and wife Jenn opened Ferment Brewing Company in 2018 and are making their mark with unique offerings like the Sentinel, a saison brewed from wild yeast and Douglas fir tips.
Or walk past the downtown brick storefronts, stopping at the bookstore or the toy store. Grab a cone at Mike’s Ice Cream or a table on the deck at 3 Rivers Grill and dig into the seafood and sausage pasta, taking in the river view.
The historic Hood River Hotel, which opened in the heart of downtown over a century ago, has been lovingly restored. Start the day downstairs over the delightful Scandinavian breakfast dishes from Broder Ost.
The Columbia Gorge Discovery Center & Museum, nearby in the Dalles, includes displays on the Corps of Discovery.
Founded as a fur-trading post a few years after the Corps’ visit, Astoria later became a 20th century salmon-packing boomtown before the fishing dwindled. Those passages are captured in two worthwhile local museums: the Columbia River Maritime Museum, and the Clatsop County Historical Society’s Heritage Museum.
The city is about a two-hour drive northwest of Portland, where the river meets the Pacific. The sense of history here is palpable, whether seen on the Astoria Column’s murals or in displays at the Hanthorn Cannery Museum, commemorating a once-bustling fish cannery since converted to shops and restaurants.
History comes alive at nearby Fort Clatsop, a reconstruction of the site where Lewis and Clark’s party wintered in 1805-06. Here, rangers dress in period clothing daily from late June to Labor Day and over Christmas week, describing the Corps’ daily routine and their desperate winter.
“Their clothes were literally rotting off their bodies,” said Zachary Stocks, an interpretive park ranger.
You can hike the 6.5-mile (one way) Fort to Sea trail, or circle the 2.4-mile trail around Coffenbury Lake a short drive away at Fort Stevens State Park, which also has extensive bike trails.
Nothing here seems to move at a hurried pace.
From your room at the luxuriously appointed Cannery Pier Hotel & Spa, newly renovated in 2022, watch giant car-carrying ships crawl past, destined for Portland.
You can borrow a hotel bike and pedal along the waterfront, or stroll the downtown shops, including Finn Ware, a nod to the region’s longtime Nordic connections. Drive past the colorful hillside homes, park your car, trudge up the Astoria Column’s steps and launch a balsa-wood glider into the wind.
Surprise yourself with delicate fried mushrooms or sautéed shishito peppers from Busu, a Japanese-influenced takeout hole in the wall, linger over seafood at the Silver Salmon Grille, or dig into a Caprese panini at Gaetano’s Market & Deli. You can sit inside or out and savor a craft beer at the Astoria Brewing Company Taproom or the Fort George Brewery and Public House.
Among the relative newcomers for drinks stand Blaylock’s Whiskey Bar, with its tall library of spirits just a ladder away, and Galactix, a taphouse/arcade with vintage games in a futuristic Star Wars setting.
In fall, the rolling hills surrounding Walla Walla, about four hours east of Portland, shimmer with ankle-high harvested wheat. The yellow-gold is interspersed by green vineyards heavy with grapes awaiting harvest and their future home inside a wine bottle.
When Joan Monteillet was growing up here in the 1960s, she said, “it was just a Podunk town surrounded by wheat farms.”
That assessment arrived while we sampled a selection of creamy, subtle sheep and goat’s milk cheeses that she and her husband, Pierre-Louis Monteillet, have perfected over the past 25 years at Monteillet Fromagerie.
The area’s food scene has evolved during that span to keep pace with Walla Walla’s burgeoning reputation as a wine-lover’s destination. More than 120 wineries call the Walla Walla Valley home today, more than double the total in the early 2000s.
The downtown core is thriving, with restaurants, shops and more than 30 wine-tasting rooms. One of the very few that also houses a production winery is the gorgeous Seven Hills Winery, set in a century-old wood mill. As we sampled a series of robust reds — merlot, cabernet sauvignon, a Bordeaux blend and petit verdot — winemaker Bobby Richards passed through, his mind on imminent harvest scheduling.
“We’re on the high dive, about to take the plunge,” he said.
Also in town, and mixing art with wine, is Foundry Vineyards, with a big patio and gallery space. The Walla Walla Valley is divided into six winemaking districts that even reach slightly into Oregon; options are many, and we enjoyed Reininger, L’Ecole No 41 and Pepper Bridge Winery.
Dining options are varied, from the hearty, homestyle breakfasts at the Maple Counter Café to handmade pasta at Passatempo Taverna to the Southern flair (think summer corn and grilled pork collar) of Hattaway’s on Alder.
To be simply transported by a meal, stop for the heavenly tacos (short rib, brisket, marinated pork and more) at AK’s Mercado. Chef/owner Andrae Bopp’s attention to detail includes importing corn from southern Mexico and grinding it on-site for tortillas.
A short drive from town, the Inn at Abeja offers a peaceful respite on a 38-acre farmstead, with luxurious surroundings (imagine Norman Rockwell’s vision of a turn-of-the-century farm), superb dining and the opportunity to sip a 2014 cabernet sauvignon on your veranda.
Vestiges of Lewis and Clark’s journey remain nearby. At the Fort Walla Walla Museum, a diorama demonstrates the Corps’ exchanging of gifts with a local Native American chief. About 45 minutes northeast of the city, the Patit Creek Campsite’s metal silhouette sculptures represent party members, a lingering reminder of their passing.
Pulaski is a writer based in Portland, Ore.
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