7 Best Things to Do at Fort Vancouver National Park

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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

(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). 

Bastion and palisades of Fort Vancouver National Park as seen from the historic garden.
View of bastion and palisades of Fort Vancouver from the fort historic garden.

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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.

Fort Vancouver entry.

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.

Bastion and Palisades at 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.

Fort Vancouver National Park interpretive sign.

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.

Oregon Country

Chief Factor's house at Fort Vancouver.

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.

Inside a bedroom at the Chief Factor's House, Fort Vancouver National Park.
Borro and Appaloosa explore a bedroom inside the HSC Customs Building.

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.

Beaver pelts ready for trading.
Beaver pelts prepared for trading

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.

Cannon in front of Chief Factor's house at Fort Vancouver.

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.

Beaver traps at Fort Vancouver National Park.
Beaver traps

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.

Bastion and palisades at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.
You can find reconstructions of the Village just outside the palisade on the west side of the Fort.

#2 Experience Living History

Inside the carpentry shop woking on making a wooden top with a docent. Fort Vancouver National Park.
Panther plays with a toy top that he built in the carpentry shop.

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.

Wooden pegs in place of nails. Fort Vancouver NHS, Washington.

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!

Nails from the Ft. Vancouver blacksmith shop.
Nails in the blacksmith shop

#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. 

Art display at the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center.
Rattlesnake enjoyed the indigenous art at the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center.

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!

Visitor Center, Fort Vancouver NHS.

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.

Our hippest dancer celebrates another Junior Ranger Badge.

#4 Report to the Vancouver Barracks

The Flagstaff and Parade Grounds of the Columbia Barracks. Image from NPS.

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. 

Image from NPS.

“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.

Fort Vancouver’s miliatry buildings are gradually being prepared and opened to the public. Picture from NPS.

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. 

Image from NPS.

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

Aviation history repeatedly made at Pearson Field. Image from NPS.

Right next to Fort Vancouver stands another frontier outpost. Pearson Field is one of the oldest operating airfields in United States.

Historic Pearson Field as seen from Fort Vancouver’s gardens.

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

Field between the Fort Vancouver visitor center and the actual fort buildings.

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. 

Garden arch at Fort Vancouver.

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. 

Memorial for Japanese men found adrift not far from Fort Vancouver.

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

Chief Factor's House at Fort Vancouver National Park in Vancouver, Washington.
Chief Factor’s house, where the McLoughlin family resided while living at Fort Vancouver.

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. 

An 1858 rendering of the McGloughplin House. Image from NPS.

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.

The McGloughlin House provides a more personal look into the events of the 19th Century Oregon. Image from NPS.

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

Family with dog at Fort Vancouver National Park

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.

memorial for Japanese men who were adrift and arrived at Fort Vancouver
Cannon and child in front of Chief Factor's house at Fort Vancouver

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About the author

Brian Warren is a native of California and has traveled extensively throughout the United States, Canada, and several other countries. He's husband to Jennifer, Dad of six children, and taught middle school history for several years. His special interests include craft beers, the American Old West, and geology. Brian is also an online marketing specialist and cofounder of Dinkum Tribe, a website dedicated to healthy, happy families. Feel free to send Brian a message at [email protected].

Comments

  1. Definitely looks like a fun stop on a roadtrip! Thanks for sharing so many details, very helpful.:)

  2. I’d never heard of this national park before! I love the Pacific Northwest and go frequently, so I’ll be sure to check out the Fort Vancouver Historic Site the next time I’m there. Thanks for all the great information.

    1. I’m always surprised at how few people have visited – it’s kind of a local secret. 🙂

  3. Fort Vancouver is an excellent place to visit and your post is super helpful for making the most of it! We didn’t get to all of these activities when we were there so I’m pinning this for our next visit. Thanks for such an informative article!

    1. If you can go on a weekday, it’s less busy and the docents are so happy to interact with visitors!

  4. This looks like the perfect place to visit to learn more about the history of the area. I love places like this that are like outdoor museums, they’re so fun!

  5. I have never heard of Fort Vancouver so it was interesting to read about a site I can visit on my next trip to the PNW. Interesting to see where the Hudson’s Bay Company went south from Canada. So great that they offer hands on activities. A great way to experience history.

  6. I’m moving to the PNW soon and can’t wait to see this! Thanks for the great info!

  7. Oooh how interesting! It’s so strange when you live in the Canadian Vancouver to hear about the Vancouvers in the USA, especially that they also have a history with the HBC! We have sooo much shared history across the border!!

    1. Yes, it’s pretty funny to talk to Oregon residents about Vancouver, because they always assume it’s the city near Portland, not the Canadian Vancouver!

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