Referred to by local
planners as the
community’s “living room,”
on the Astoria River Trail
you are likely to pass
families toting grocery bags,
kids in high school sports
jerseys and joggers, as well
as tourists enamored with
the unique sights of this
active port city.
A city of 10,000, Astoria sits on the
southern bank of the Columbia River,
near where it spills into the Pacific
Ocean at the state line between Oregon
and Washington. It’s a choice location,
and explorers cast a longing eye on
the spot at least as early as 1792, when
Captain Robert Gray first nosed his
vessel, the
Columbia Rediviva
into the
river and named it. In 1805, Lewis and
Clark reached the same point after their
incredible overland expedition. And
a few years later, in 1811, John Jacob
Astor’s Pacific Fur Company founded
Fort Astoria, a trading post on the site of
present-day Astoria.
These days, the journey to Astoria
isn’t nearly so taxing. Since the city start-
ed building the paved, 6.4-mile Astoria
River Trail in the mid-1990s, it’s become
easier to explore the maritime communi-
ty and see what generations of pioneers
and travelers have stopped to admire.
Maritime history is an important part
of Astoria’s charm and personality. In the
s, at the peak of the city’s promi-
nence as a salmon and tuna processing
hub, canneries lined the waterfront.
Changing ocean currents eventually
thinned the local tuna harvest and most
of the canneries closed. What remains of
them are thousands of wooden pilings
that bristle up from the water like nee-
dles in a pincushion; they make excellent
perches for all sorts of birds, such as
Caspian terns and cormorants.
Yet while many of the canneries left,
Astoria is still very much a working fish-
ing town. You might see the day’s catch
getting offloaded from boats just feet
from the trail in the late afternoon.
Plenty of attractions await all along
the trail. Heading east from the far
western tip, you’ll pass large store yards
of the Port of Astoria, arrayed with
hundreds of ships of every age, type and
size. Shortly up the path, you’ll reach the
Maritime Memorial, which sits under
the hulking Astoria-Megler Bridge and
pays tribute to the area’s seafaring history
and locals lost at sea.
A few blocks farther east is a load-
ing point for the city’s famous bar and
river pilots. Because of shifting sandbars
in the Columbia River, incoming ships
would hire a bar pilot to hop on board
and navigate them through the river’s
treacherous waters. The area was known
as the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” and
you can visit a number of nearby ship-
wrecks that testify to its dangers.
At 17th Street the trail takes you
right up to the Columbia River
Maritime Museum. From there, follow
the barking another mile to 36th Street,
where the city’s sea lions bask on the
docks.They can make quite a racket,
but they’re fun to watch as they nearly
submerge some of the docks under their
heft and numbers.
If you need to rest your legs at
any point, climb aboard the Astoria
Riverfront Trolley
parallels the main trunk of the trail.
With a bit of seed money from the city,
local volunteers purchased and then
restored an early 1900s trolley from a
museum in San Antonio. It costs $1 to
ride and isn’t built for speed, but you’ll
get a little history lesson along the way
from the volunteer motormen and
As recently as the 1990s the city
was nearly cut off from its own water-
front. The Astoria and Columbia River
Railroad completed the line in 1898,
and the route—subsequently acquired
by the Spokane, Portland and Seattle
Railway—became popular with weekend
tourists heading to the coast; later it
fed the area’s booming timber industry.
By the early 1990s, though, the cor-
ridor had ended service and become
overgrown or crowded out by industrial
buildings. In most places, you couldn’t
even walk to the water. But the city
focused a revitalization effort around the
trail, opening the first short section in
then adding to it block by block.
Today, the River Trail—alternatively
referred to as the Astoria River Walk
along the downtown section—is open to
pedestrians and bicyclists. Local planners
like to say the trail serves as the com-
munity’s “living room,” and it certainly
makes you feel at home with its many
pocket parks and picnic tables; view-
ing towers, overlooks and interpretative
signs; benches and doggy bag stands.
In a city noted for its brutal hills,
the rail-grade pathway offers easygo-
ing mobility within a few blocks of
nearly everywhere in town. No local
monument more clearly illustrates the
steepness of Astoria’s setting than the
Astoria Column
which spears up like
a lighthouse from the highest point in
the city: 600-foot Coxcomb Hill. Built
in 1926, the Astoria Column is 125
feet high and has 164 steps winding to
the top—where the view, with Saddle
Mountain looming to the south, is
Whether you’re surveying the scene
before you hit the trail or soaking up
the sights at the end of a day’s hike, one
thing is clear: The Astoria Column, like
the River Trail, is worth every step you
Karl Wirsing is the former editor-in-chief of
Rails to Trails
He now works for the University
of Washington in Seattle, and his office sits
just feet from the Burke-Gilman Trail.