Wednesday, December 2, 2020
Dec. 2, 2020

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Visit the ‘Graveyard of the Pacific’ at the mouth of the Columbia River


Many places in the Pacific Northwest are inherently fraught with danger. From crumbling cliffs to rumbling volcanoes, perilous conditions exist everywhere.

But few areas can claim a toll of death and destruction, and certainly none has such a dramatic name, as the “Graveyard of the Pacific.”

The “graveyard” is considered to range from Tillamook Bay in Oregon, up the Washington coast to Vancouver Island, an area that’s home to many rocky reefs and shorelines. But perhaps the most treacherous area lies at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Straddling the line between Oregon and Washington, the mighty river mouth is home to shifting sand bars, high seas and heavy winds that combine to create a nightmare for ships entering from the ocean.

Approximately 2,000 vessels have sunk at the Columbia Bar since 1792, and more than 700 lives have been lost, according to Astoria’s Columbia River Maritime Museum, where an ominous map of the shipwrecks looms large on a wall near the entrance.

Ships still struggle today, though they have a little help. Vessels entering the mouth of the river are guided by the Columbia River Bar Pilots, an organization founded in 1846 to help keep vessels safe. With experience and modern technology, the number of shipwrecks declined considerably over the 20th century, though the area continued to attract danger.

During World War II, armed forces were stationed at Fort Stevens on the Oregon side of the river, and Fort Canby and Fort Columbia on the Washington side. Together, they created a “triangle of death” that protected the mouth of the river from foreign invaders (the same strategy was used with a group of forts in the Puget Sound).

While armed forces on the coast saw no significant action, the mouth of the Columbia River was the site of one of the only attacks on mainland U.S. soil during the war.

In June 1942, a Japanese submarine surfaced off the Oregon coast at Fort Stevens and fired on Battery Russell. No one was hurt and no damage was done, though the shells fell “dangerously close to their objective,” exploding in a nearby swamp, according to a report that month in The Oregonian.

After World War II, the old military batteries were decommissioned and have since been kept as historic sites – becoming some of the creepiest attractions in the region.

Between shipwrecks, big waves, abandoned batteries and gloomy skies, the mouth of the Columbia River remains one of the most dramatic destinations in the Pacific Northwest. Whether you’re there to visit the stormy seas or just enjoy a weekend in Astoria, here are six places that offer a taste of the Graveyard of the Pacific.

As always, follow state and local health guidelines when traveling to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Wear a face mask in indoor public places, or when social distance outdoors is not possible. Don’t travel if you feel sick or have symptoms of COVID-19. And remember to wash your hands frequently or use hand sanitizer after visiting public places.

1. Peter Iredale Shipwreck

The Peter Iredale wrecked on the northern Oregon coast in 1906, blown ashore by strong winds as it attempted to enter the mouth of the Columbia. The ship was sold for scrap and what wasn’t taken was left on the beach to rot, becoming Oregon’s best-known shipwreck and one of the most popular attractions in Astoria. The shipwreck is found on the beach at Fort Stevens State Park and is easily accessible when the tide is low.

Find the shipwreck at Fort Stevens State Park, following signs to “shipwreck”; parking is $5 per vehicle.

2. Columbia River Maritime Museum (Lightship Columbia)

The Columbia River Maritime Museum is dedicated to the history of the lower Columbia River, including the people and industries that have called it home. The museum starts with the many Native American tribes that inhabited the area for thousands of years before white settlers arrived, and includes exhibits on the booming fishing industry, as well as the challenges for ships trying to enter the mouth of the river. Outside, visitors can tour the lightship Columbia, which for three decades helped ships cross the Columbia Bar.

The maritime museum is open to a limited capacity during the pandemic, with one-way galleries and mandatory face masks.

Open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; $14 for adults, $12 for seniors, $5 for kids; 1792 Marine Drive, Astoria; 503-325-2323.

3. Fort Stevens

Fort Stevens State Park gives visitors both river and ocean views at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon, with trails and beaches to explore. Aside from the Peter Iredale shipwreck and historic military batteries, visitors can get a good look at the massive south jetty that measures more than two miles long. Fort Stevens is also a great place to stay, with hundreds of campsites, yurts and cabins.

Open dawn to dusk daily; day use parking is $5 per vehicle; 1675 Peter Iredale Road, Hammond; 503-861-3170.

4. Cape Disappointment

On the north side of the Columbia River in Washington, Cape Disappointment State Park offers another great look at the treacherous coastline. Visit the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse on the Columbia River and the North Head Lighthouse on the Pacific Ocean. On stormy days, stop by Waikiki Beach to see huge waves crashing against the rocks.

Open 6:30 a.m. to dusk daily; day use parking is $10 per vehicle, or free with an annual Discover Pass; 244 Robert Gray Drive, Ilwaco; 360-642-3078.

5. Military batteries

The historic military installations that protected the mouth of the Columbia River as a “triangle of death” can be found at Fort Stevens State Park in Oregon and Fort Canby at Cape Disappointment State Park in Washington, as well as Fort Columbia Historical State Park in Washington. While batteries and parks may be open to the public, interpretive centers may remain closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Fort Columbia is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in winter, 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily in summer; day use parking is $10 per vehicle, or free with an annual Discover Pass; 475 State Route 101 Chinook; 360-777-8221.

6. Long Beach

The southernmost beach town on the Washington coast, Long Beach has seen several major shipwrecks over the years, most recently in 1954, when the barge Intrepid was cut loose and ran aground. The long stretch of sandy beach is best explored along the Discovery Trail, a mostly paved hiking and bicycle path that runs 8.5 miles along the ocean into Cape Disappointment State Park.