Fort Vancouver National Park offers a unique opportunity to travel American history from start to finish. You can enjoy indigenous art, explore a frontier fur-trading post, tour a Civil War era military base, and walk among WWI aircraft all in one day. We’ve visited Fort Vancouver several times because there’s so much to see and do, and our kids always enjoy their visit.
@dinkumtribe Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, as seen from inside the palisade. #nationalparks #nationalparkservice #fortvancouver #washingtonstate #pnwadventures ♬ IMPERIAL PIANO – Treia Music
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(Fort Vancouver National Park is officially known as Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. The name sounds straightforward, but there’s actually a whole lot more to this place than just an old fort).
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A Historical Jackpot
Fort Vancouver NHS is only a part of the Vancouver National Historic Reserve, a 252-acre area with a rich cultural past. The reserve is the premier historic archaeological site in the Pacific Northwest. It tells the story of the Pacific Northwest from its earliest years to the present day.
Best of all, Fort Vancouver’s significant historical areas are located on the edge of the Portland metro region. At only a half hour’s drive from the city of Portland, Fort Vancouver NHP is one of the most accessible of all the National parks.
Here’s 7 ways to get the most out your trip to Fort Vancouver National Park.
#1 Explore Fort Vancouver
Fort Vancouver reminds us of a time when this land was pristine, indigenous, and unknown to much of the world. All of this changed with the arrival of the Hudson Bay Company, the chief fur-trapping company of the British Empire. The Hudson Bay Company (HBC) quickly spread throughout the Pacific Northwest. HBC established fur posts from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast.
Today, a reconstructed fort site allows you to step back in time and consider the surprising origin of the American Pacific Northwest. The National Park Service uses careful reconstructions, interpretive talks, and living history activities to make the fort’s rich history accessible to all. You can easily reach the fort’s grounds from the fort parking lot located on East Fifth Street.
The HBC established Fort Vancouver in 1824 as an administrative headquarters and main supply depot for all the Company’s activity west of the Rocky Mountains. The Fort was built for commercial reasons. However it was actually the de facto government at a time when there were no other European or American settlements in Oregon country.
@dinkumtribe Climbing up the Bastion (fort tower) at Fort Vancouver National Park! #homeschoolfieldtrip #adhdfamilytravel #familytravelblog #historicbuilding #pacificnorthwesttravel #pacificnorthwestroadtrips #pacificnorthwestlife #hudsonbaycompany #fortvancouver #thatpnwlife #roadtripwithus #roadtripidea #nationalparks #vancouverwa #vancouverwashington #oregonhistory #washingtonhistory ♬ original sound – dinkumtribe
Fort Vancouver cultivated and protected Oregon’s first western settlements and industries. A vibrant urban landscape developed around the fort and new settlements sprung up in the fort’s extensive landholdings along the Columbia River, Willamette Valley, and Puget Sound area.
American Emigrants who risked the Oregon Trail naturally made the Fort their first stop when they arrived in Oregon. So it isn’t a stretch to say that Fort Vancouver is the birthplace of the Oregon we know today.
A lot has changed since those days. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 divided Oregon Country between the United State and Great Britain at the 49th parallel. Oregon Territory was gradually organized into states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. The Fort still stands sentinel on the banks of the Columbia River in what is now Washington State.
An International Oregon
Fort Vancouver was a surprising place in its heyday. The frontier outpost was one one of the most cosmopolitan places on earth. It foreshadowed the global economy we know today.
The fur trade was an international operation. French Canadian voyageurs risked life and limb to trap pelts that were shipped to China for top dollar.
The Hawaiian islands were a natural stopping point for these Pacific voyages. Many Hawaiians signed up for service with the Hudson Bay company in order to gain a social mobility that they couldn’t find in traditional Hawaiian society. For more about this, check out the book listed below:
Fort Vancouver village introduces us to an Oregon Country that was dramatically different than the Oregon that appeared after American settlement. Englishmen, French Canadians, Native Americans, Hawaiians, and other ethnicities rubbed shoulders and relied on each other to build up what would eventually be the modern Pacific Northwest.
#2 Experience Living History
Fort Vancouver National Historic Site has a lot to offer to families. The detailed reconstruction gives children a powerful sense of what it was like to live two centuries ago. For example, the wooden pegs that bind the palisades point out how precious and expensive metal was in frontier Oregon.
Students can work beside blacksmiths as they build beaver traps or try their hand at 19th century carpentry.
@dinkumtribe The blacksmith shop docent showed our kids how beaver traps worked during the 1800s. #homeschoolfieldtrip #adhdfamilytravel #familytravelblog #historicalreenactor #livinghistorymuseum #livinghistorythings #pacificnorthwesttravel #pacificnorthwestroadtrips #pacificnorthwestlife #hudsonbaycompany #fortvancouver #thatpnwlife ♬ Another One Bites The Dust – Remastered 2011 – Queen
They can purvey the essential supplies that are available at the company store or see what’s cooking in kitchen. The Fort’s excellent Junior Ranger program adds an additional layer of learning to the park’s programs. It provides a fantastic history lesson for all kinds of learners!
#3 Check Out the Visitor Center
Fort Vancouver NHS may have the best-located visitor center in the entire National Parks system. The Fort Vancouver Visitor Center is far enough removed from the fort to let the fort be an experience. Better yet, the Visitor Center sits atop a hill overlooking the Fort and the metropolis that sprung from it.
The Visitor Center is literally in the center of the park, being in close proximity to nearly all of the park’s historic interests. The learning is underway as soon as you get out of the car because even the visitor center parking lot has features and interpretive plaques!
Fort Vancouver Visitor Center is a great place to start your visit at Fort Vancouver NHS. The introductory video gives a great synopsis of the site’s significance. It wasn’t a surprise to see our children looking over the displays after they had seen the film. This book also provided great details.
In a half-hour’s time we had gotten the scoop about the Fort Vancouver, studied real artifacts, and set each of the kids up with their Jr. Ranger activity books.
#4 Report to the Vancouver Barracks
The most historic buildings of Fort Vancouver NHS are located on the ridge that overlooks the reconstructed fort. The Vancouver barracks showcase a powerful military legacy dating back to 1849.
“Camp Vancouver” was established at that time to provide protection for American settlement. It was the first United States Army post in the Pacific Northwest. It also played a prominent role in directing and supplying operations in the Civil War and Indian Wars.
Several notable Civil War generals put in their time at the Columbia Barracks including Ulysses S. Grant, George B. McClellan, Philip H. Sheridan, and George Pickett.
The base also played an important role in the Spanish American War, World War I, and World War II. The Columbia Barracks and Officers Row provide an up-close look at a century of US Army history.
#5 Take to the Skies
Right next to Fort Vancouver stands another frontier outpost. Pearson Field is one of the oldest operating airfields in United States.
This storied field saw: the innovation of early aircraft, the production of WWI war planes, participation in the first aerial circumnavigation of the world, and the completion of the world’s first transpolar flight. Pearson Air Museum preserves the field’s history through restored aircraft and beautiful murals.
#6 Take a Hike
River views, beautiful lawns, and level paths make Fort Vancouver NHS a great place for outdoor adventure. Monuments, artwork, and interpretive plaques provide a host of ways to learn the stories of the Pacific Northwest.
Read the incredible tale of three Japanese men who arrived at Fort Vancouver after being adrift for fourteen months. The beautiful Vancouver Landbridge yields great river views and an indigenous perspective on Columbia River and its native history.
Listen to the audio tour to get the full experience. The landbridge brings you safely over Highway 14 into the park’s riverfront lands and the Vancouver waterfront.
#7 Visit the Home of the Father of Oregon
Two separate units comprise the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. Fort Vancouver is the first unit and tells the beginning of British rule in Oregon. The McLoughlin House tells the rest of the story.
John McLoughlin served the Hudson Bay Company as the Chief Factor, the superintendent of Fort Vancouver. McLoughlin was highly regarded for his integrity and moral character.
McLoughlin was eventually fired from his position when he refused to take a hard line on the destitute American settlers who arrived via the Oregon Trail. He eventually chose American citizenship and took up residence in the house that now stands in Oregon City. John McLoughlin is known today as the Father of Oregon.
Real History with Low Fuss
Fort Vancouver National Park is an excellent stop for road-tripping families. The park’s two sites are educational, interesting, and easy to use.
Do you have a national historic site that you absolutely love? Please share it with us in comments. Happy traveling!
© Copyright Brian A. Warren 2022.