Oregon’s rich history is on display at Fort Clatsop National Park near Astoria. Fort Clatsop is where the famous explorers Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery spent the miserable winter of 1805-1806. We’ve visited this park several times, and highly recommend it as a family activity!
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**Note: the official name of Fort Clatsop National Park is actually The Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. There are multiple other sites that have the Lewis and Clark name! So we’ll usually refer to it in this post as Fort Clatsop National Park for simplicity.
How to get to Fort Clatsop
Fort Clatsop (Lewis & Clark NHP) is a unit of the National Park Service that consists of several sites in Oregon and Washington. The main park is a two-hour drive from Portland, between Astoria and Seaside. The Dismal Nitch and Middle Village sites are on the Washington side of the Columbia River (both about a 20-minute drive from Lewis and Clark NHP).
The historic significance of Fort Clatsop
The Corps of Discovery made United States history when they mapped routes of travel from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the two-year expedition, guided by Sacagawea. This journey was no easy feat, and the Corps faced many challenges along the way. At the request of President Thomas Jefferson, the expedition members began in St. Louis and mapped the journey to the Pacific Coast and back.
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail is a collection of national parks, state parks, and historic sites which follow the footsteps of the explorers from Pennsylvania to the Pacific (as well as other significant events in their lives). Fort Clatsop was the site of the explorers’ winter encampment.
What to see at Fort Clatsop National Park
The Fort Clatsop unit of the Lewis and Clark NHP has several notable features. The Fort Clatsop Visitor Center offers ranger-led programs, as well as audio-visual presentations. Our kids loved exploring the exhibit hall which includes artifacts from the expedition and interpretive activities.
We recommend stopping here first if you plan to visit several of the local Lewis and Clark sites. Not only is it the best place to get visitor information, but you can also pick up Junior Ranger booklets for your kids. To earn the Junior Ranger badge for this park, you will need to visit several of the other sites nearby.
The gift shop offers a variety of items, including books, maps, and souvenirs. The selection is great, and both kids and adults will easily find something to interest them, so definitely plan to spend a bit of time exploring!
Fort Clatsop Replica
It’s a short walk from the Visitor Center to the focus of the park, the full-scale replica of Fort Clatsop. Along the way, your kids can look for native plants of the coastal forests to check off in their Junior Ranger book.
As you walk in through the palisades you’ll see inside the reconstruction of the fort. Park rangers give interpretive talks and demonstrations, which often involve volunteers in historic costumes during special events. Note: we’ve seen more demonstrations when school groups are present.
We felt sorry for the 33 members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition when we saw how small the fort was. We’ve visited the Oregon Coast several times during the rainy winter season, and couldn’t imagine that many people being stuck in those buildings together all that time!
Netul River Trail
From the fort replica, you can walk through the forest down to the Netul River Trail. It’s a little over a mile to the Netul Landing Site picnic area along the river path. Our kids enjoyed the walk even on a damp day.
Alternatively, you can drive directly to the Netul Landing site from the Visitor’s Center— the parking lot is right off Fort Clatsop Road. The fee is included with your park entrance fee.
The Netul Landing site includes a small parking lot, picnic tables, and a short trail that leads down to the river. A covered interpretive pavilion explains the significance of the site.
Kayaking and Hiking (Fort to Sea)
A canoe and kayak launch on the riverbank commemorates the Corps of Discovery’s historic canoe landing in early December 1805. Launch your kayak or canoe from here, or enjoy a ranger-led kayak tour in the summertime.
The Fort to Sea trail follows the path the Expedition took from Fort Clatsop to Sunset Beach. It’s over 6 miles one way, with varying terrain and few amenities along the way. If you have seasoned hikers in your family, it would make a great day hike.
Nearby Natural Features
The mouth of the Columbia River is located just downstream from the Netul Landing Site. This area is home to a variety of wetlands and is a critical habitat for many species of birds. There are multiple habitats, including freshwater marshes, forested wetlands, and coastal estuaries.
The Lewis and Clark National Historical Park is open year-round. The best (and busiest) time to visit is during the summer months. However, you can still enjoy Fort Clatsop national park in the rainy fall, winter, or spring (that’s when our family has always visited).
Check the website for current park hours and upcoming events.
Other Lewis and Clark sites near Fort Clatsop National Park
Salt Works (Seaside)
The Salt Works area of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park is a great place to learn about the expedition’s work in creating salt. This was an important part of their food preservation for survival on later parts of the trip when they were unable to hunt or fish.
It’s in a small neighborhood in downtown Seaside, and there’s not much to see at the Salt Cairn (and no amenities whatsoever).
If you walk a few blocks over to the Seaside Promenade and follow it to the central roundabout, there’s a beautiful replica of the explorers catching their first view of the Pacific.
Ecola State Park
Continue your drive south (towards Cannon Beach) to check out the beautiful views of Ecola State Park. At Ecola, the Corps of Discovery found a whale corpse that provided them with much-needed food and blubber (used for oil).
Today you can often see whales from the high cliff top or have a picnic lunch.
North of Fort Clatsop
If you drive north from Fort Clatsop, you’ll cross the Columbia River estuary into Astoria. Take the Astoria-Megler bridge across the state line into Washington to visit other sites connected to the Corps of Discovery.
Cape Disappointment State Park (formerly called Fort Canby State Park) is about 30 minutes from Astoria in Washington. Lewis and Clark’s expedition arrived in the area in November 1805. The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center has exhibits to continue learning about the Corps of Discovery.
A short drive away is two smaller historic sites, Dismal Nitch and Middle Village. Middle Village (previously known to historians as Station Camp) contains rich archaeological evidence of a Chinook village. The same spot was later used as a campsite for the Lewis and Clark Expedition after the Chinook had moved to a different location.
Dismal Nitch tells the story of a challenging incident on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but I won’t give it away here. 🙂 There are beautiful views of the Columbia, as well as interpretive signs.
A memorable experience
Fort Clatsop National Park and its other connected sites have so much to offer families! Earning the Junior Ranger badge was a highlight for my daughter the last time we visited Seaside. The other kids can’t wait for the chance to earn their badges, especially since they saw the Westward Expansion Museum in St. Louis last summer!
If you’re looking for a unique and educational experience, be sure to check out Fort Clatsop National Park. You won’t be disappointed!
© Copyright Jennifer D. Warren 2022.