Fort Clatsop – The End of the Lewis & Clark Trail

by Wendy on August 27, 2014

Lewis & Clark National Historical Park

The Columbia River flows into the Pacific at Astoria, where nearby Fort Clatsop marks the end of the Lewis & Clark Trail

The natural setting of the lower Columbia River, with its cliffs, evergreens, beaches, and waterways, brings the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s western terminus to life. The park at Fort Clatsop commemorates the Expedition’s arrival at the ocean, its winter encampment, area explorations, encounters with native tribes and preparations for their return to the United States.

For the Corps of Discovery, the military post they built and named after the local Clatsop tribe proved to be a wet home in the woods for three months, as the Corps saw just six sunny days during its stay. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark created more maps and made more journal entries at Fort Clatsop than at any other location on the journey, while the soldiers made over 300 pairs of moccasins for the upcoming winter and the long journey home.

Fort Clatsop, which includes the replica fort, was established as a unit of the National Park Service in 1958 to commemorate the 1805-06 winter encampment of the 33-member Corps. Lewis and Clark chose the site for its plentiful game; many of the same species still inhabit the area today. Watch for bald eagles and osprey sailing overhead, Black-tailed deer and Roosevelt elk grazing in the woods and grasslands, plus playful otters in the rivers and estuaries. The trailheads for the Fort to Sea Trail and the Netul River Trail are located here.

Today at Fort Clatsop you will find the National Park Service’s primary Visitor Center for the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. Friendly park rangers, maps and information are available to help plan your trip to the entire park.

Costumed living history programs are scheduled at Fort Clatsop during the summer months, from late June through Labor Day. These include demonstrations on fire starting, muzzle loading and shooting, hide tanning, candle making and many other skills and topics related to the Corps of Discovery. There’s even a Seaman’s Day at the park on the 2nd Wednesday of July to honor the Newfoundland dog that made the journey with the Corps. In the winter season, make a rainy day excursion to Fort Clatsop and take cover in the fort to get a real feel of what the Corps endured.

The Fort Clatsop bookstore has guidebooks, educational games and toys for children, artwork and Native American arts and crafts. The Visitor Center has an exhibit hall, several audio-visual programs and many accessible features, including an audio tour of the fort with hearing assisted devices for the movies. A Braille map and wheelchair accessible trails are available. Families may enjoy the free Junior Ranger Program, where children 4 years old and up (or anyone who is young at heart) can earn their Jr. Ranger badge by completing a series of fun activities in and around the park.

The Fort makes a great departure point for the rest of your Lewis and Clark National Historical Park visit. Fort Clatsop is only part of this great story and on any given day Corps’ members were away from the Fort, hunting, making salt or trading with local natives. You, too, can explore the area around the fort and the growing trail network, including the historic canoe landing about 200 yards beyond the fort that also offers a Lewis and Clark River overlook with a view of Saddle Mountain in the distance.

Fort To Sea Trail Fort Clatsop and Sunset Beach
Try hiking the Fort to Sea Trail and exploring some of the homeland of the Clatsop tribe. The 6.5-mile trail (13 miles round-trip) traverses a surprising and diverse range of landscapes – deep woods, dense bogs, flowing grasslands, cattle pastures and coastal dunes – as it winds its way down to Sunset Beach.

The Trail is in distinct sections. From the Visitor Center at Fort Clatsop, the first 1.5 miles is a gentle climb to the top of Clatsop Ridge, where on a clear day you can see through the trees to the Pacific Ocean. You’ll pass through 40-60-year-old stands of western hemlock, Douglas fir, cedar and Sitka spruce trees.

From the overlook on Clatsop Ridge to Hwy 101, this 2.5-mile section of the trail is the most rugged of the trip. The narrow foot path winds through a lush coastal forest with large ferns and passes a large wetland. Watch the ground for tracks and signs of wildlife, including elk, bear, deer and bobcat. Overhead, eagles, osprey and herons are frequently seen.

At 3.5 miles, you’ll cross the Skipanon River. Now you’re traversing ancient coastal sand dunes. At 4 miles is the crossing tunnel under Hwy 101, next to the Clatsop County Pioneer Cemetery, where some of the area’s earliest settlers are buried.

The hike continues through the dunes along the edge of the Oregon National Guard’s Camp Rilea.

At mile 5, you cross the arched Neacoxie Lake Bridge. The trail now travels through coastal dunes with shore pines planted by Civilian Conservation Corps members in the 1930s. Western hemlocks gradually replace the shore pines. At mile 6, you arrive at the Sunset Beach Fort to Sea Trailhead parking area.

Continue on the 1/3-mile trail across coastal dunes covered with grass, to the viewing deck offering sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. Cape Disappointment marks the north side of the Columbia River, while Tillamook Head in Ecola State Park stands sentry to the south.

Dismal Nitch
Imagine this: It’s early November 1805, the fresh food had run out. The clothes were literally rotting off the backs of the members of the Corps of Discovery. They were traveling as fast as they could down the Columbia River, though, to meet one of the last trading ships of the season.

What the Corps didn’t realize, however, was that it was about to run into some of the journey’s most treacherous moments. A fierce winter storm forced the Corps off the river and pinned the group to a north shore cove consisting of little more than jagged rocks and steep hillside.

Clark referred to the dreary spot in his journal on Nov. 12: “It would be distressing to a feeling person to See our Situation at this time all wet and cold…” he wrote in wet misery as the expedition was in danger of foundering within just a few miles of its destination — the Pacific Ocean.

Later he added, “About 3oClock the wind luled, and the river became calm, I had the canoes loaded in great haste and Set Out, from this dismal nitich where we have been confined for 6 days passed.

On a clear day, the picnic area at Clark’s Dismal Nitch offers an excellent view of the busy Columbia River. Not only are chances good that you’ll spot a bald eagle, but it’s hard to miss the modern “trade ships:” huge car carriers, barges and tugs that make their way up and down the river past Astoria.

After the explorers left Dismal Nitch, they camped at Middle Village/Station Camp, the site of a thriving seasonal Chinook native village. For thousands of years the Chinook people have lived along the Columbia River, and their home near the river’s mouth was strategically located to provide abundant food, such as salmon and shellfish.

In addition, the nearby forests were home to game animals and the grasslands and marshes provided ample materials for making shelter, clothing and trade and household goods. The river provided a way for Chinook traders to travel to the south shore and up and down the Columbia. They developed a sophisticated, rich culture and enjoyed great success as traders.

In 2005, archeologists found abundant physical evidence to support the importance of the site as a Chinook trade village. More than 10,000 artifacts were uncovered, including trade beads, plates, cups, musket balls, arrowheads, fish net weights and ceremonial items. The European artifacts are from both before and after the Corps’ visit in 1805, and attest to the vitality of the Chinook social and economic life at the site.

Netul River Trail and Netul Landing
To reach the wooded site that would become Fort Clatsop, the Corps paddled up the Netul River past lush riverbanks and tall evergreens providing habitat for wildlife, such as playful river otters and majestic bald eagles.

Today, the Netul River Trail allows you to experience that same wildlife as you take the gentle, one-mile meander along the Lewis and Clark River between Fort Clatsop and Netul Landing. Park your car near the landing and walk to the Visitor Center at Fort Clatsop to continue your own journey into local history, or connect up with the Fort to Sea Trail and approximate the Corps’ trip to Sunset Beach.

The Salt Works
As the Corps was arriving at the mouth of the Columbia River, every food item the members had brought from Illinois had been consumed except for a little bit of salt; they used the last of that on December 20. On December 28, the captains sent five men from Fort Clatsop to the ocean to establish a salt-making camp. Five days later this group found a suitable place on the seacoast about 15 miles southwest of Fort Clatsop.

At this site the seawater had a high salt content. Stones for building an oven, wood to burn, elk and freshwater were abundant. Near some houses of Clatsop and Tillamook (Nehalem) natives, they built a salt works and found that they could make from three quarts to a gallon a day of salt. Captain Lewis declared their product to be “excellent, fine, strong, & white.”

The Salt Works operated continually for seven weeks. Using five kettles, the salt makers boiled approximately 1,400 gallons of seawater to produce about four bushels of salt for the winter camp and their return trip to the United States. On February 20, 1806, the sea coast camp was abandoned. The stack of fire-blackened rocks remained.

In 1900, the site was memorialized by the Oregon Historical Society. Identification of the site was made by a Clatsop woman named Tsin-is-tum (aka Jennie Michel) who lived from 1816 to 1905. She recalled her mother showing her the pile of rocks and telling her of white men boiling water there.

In 1979, The Salt Works was brought into the National Park Service and today is a unit of Lewis and Clark National Historical Park.

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