For such a tiny area, Wahkiakum County packs quite a punch. Located in the bottom southwest corner of the state, this small swatch of Washington has been key to pivotal moments in not only the history of the state, but of the country. For its part in the iconic journey of Lewis and Clark, Wahkiakum County provided the first views of the Pacific Ocean to the weary explorers. Also indispensable to their expedition was the mighty Columbia River, which flows all the along the county’s border with Oregon. Most importantly, had the area and its native peoples not been helpful and accommodating to the Lewis and Clark expedition, the United States might not have the same layout as it does today.
Named for Chief Wakaiyakam of the Chinook Tribe, Wahkiakum County is the second least populated county in the state and the third smallest by land area. With its lush, fertile farmland and foothills fed by the Columbia River, the area has long supported local residents with its bounty. The first salmon cannery along the Columbia River sprang up around 1865 and inspired many similar operations. Life on the river has always been vibrant and the area’s close proximity to the Pacific Ocean has provided a strategic location for trade and exploration through the ages.
There are many scenic routes in and out of the Wahkiakum area. Since I was traveling from the Seattle area, I took Interstate-5 southbound and got off on Exit 39, near Kelso and Longview. From there, I hooked up with the beautiful Ocean Beach Highway. (AKA: SR-4, a designated State Scenic Byway and part of the Lewis & Clark Trail Scenic Byway and Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail) Once on SR-4, I drove along the Columbia River, through Cowlitz County until I crossed into Wahkiakum County around the Eagle Cliff area.
Just across the county border lies the appropriately named County Line Park. Situated directly along the Columbia River, it provides a nice rest stop and picnic location for a day visit as well as overnight RV camping. On a clear day, Mount St. Helens can be seen in the distance and the views of the river are outstanding. Having grown up mere blocks from the Columbia River as it flows through the Tri-Cities, I have a special place in my heart for its waters. I was incredibly happy to make my first stop in Wahkiakum County along its beautiful shores.
Traveling further west along SR-4, the road continues to wind along the river, but slowly gains a small bit of elevation. Perched along the resulting bluffs and overlooking the river, beautiful homes with private driveways peak through the trees. Not much further, the lovely river town of Cathlamet awaits visitors to both Wahkiakum County and nearby Oregon alike.
While it might not seem very big, Cathlamet is the largest town in Wahkiakum County and serves as the county seat. It is a hub to the area and host to the Wahkiakum County Courthouse and K-12 school district for the entire county as well as a WSU Extension campus. The area has long been home to the Kathlamet and Chinook Peoples and what was once a large village, was visited by Lewis and Clark during their travels. Chief Wakaiyakam, the county’s namesake, is buried in the Cathlamet Cemetery.
Not only is Cathlamet the heart of the county, it is also an inspiration to many artists and artistic endeavors. Films such as Snow Falling on Cedars (1999 – starring Ethan Hawke) and Men of Honor (2000 – starring Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding Jr.) have taken advantage of the beautiful surroundings. Local Tsuga Gallery features beautiful work from local artists and musicians and well-known Jazz musician Hadley Caliman called Cathlamet home for many years. He loved the area so much, in fact, he was willing to commute to his faculty position at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts during his long tenure at the school. (I had the pleasure of studying with him during my own time at Cornish!)
The history and beauty of the Cathlamet area runs deep and there are many ways in which to experience it. Simply walking around the quaint downtown area is a great way to start and can provide a great afternoon of exploration. If you happen to be in town on the weekend between May and October, stop by the Wahkiakum Historical Society Museum to investigate the county’s rich heritage. Admire the river view from the steps of the beautiful Pioneer Church (c. 1895 – On the National Register of Historic Places) and walk down to the waterfront area to enjoy the river up close. The area is particularly beautiful in the spring and summer, but Cathlamet is a charming place to explore any time of year.
For shopping opportunities stop in at Daisy Chain Floral for lovely flower arrangements and unique gifts. If you’re in the area around the holidays, head to the Lighted Christmas Parade & Holiday Market at Mile 38 Brewery and stock up on goods from the talented local artisans. (Dec 14, 3-9pm)
Since I’d left early in the morning to make a good day of it down in Wahkiakum, I’d skipped breakfast in my rush. (I did stop for coffee, however. I’m not a monster.) By the time I made it to Cathlamet, I was feeling pretty challenged and a good breakfast sounded fabulous. I was in great luck when I walked into Patty Cakes Café & Roasting, located on Main Street. I enjoyed a couple cups of their great coffee as well as a delicious scramble with bacon, Italian-blend cheese and mushrooms. To top it off, I splurged and tried one of their Patty-cakes. I’m not normally a pancake fan (unless they’re Swedish with lingonberries and butter), but the menu mentioned a 100-year old sourdough starter in their pancakes and I was intrigued. For the record, I’m very glad I tried them as they were delicious!
Cathlamet is a fairly small area, but they do have a few tasty food options. Some of the possibilities for your next Cathlamet visit:
- Maria’s Place, located on Main Street offers scratch-made Mexican cuisine as well as a full bar and early morning breakfast every day. (Open daily at 7am)
- Not just for pizza, The Pizza Mill serves great pizza along with burgers, sandwiches, salads and more. (Closed Sundays)
- Stop in at the Mile 38 Brewery if you’re in the market for a great pint or two. (They also have house-made root beer!) If you happen to be moored at the nearby marina or staying at the campsite, they’re perfectly located for a relaxing break. Bring your own food or arrange for delivery from a local restaurant. (Wednesday – Saturday, 4-9pm and Sundays, 2-6pm – Family and dog friendly)
If you’re thinking of staying in the Cathlamet area or perhaps stopping in during your next river expedition, check out these great options:
- The downtown Hotel Cathlamet (c. 1926) features comfortable rooms and a lovely lobby and tavern in this historic building. They also offer a continental breakfast, a large patio and a freezer to store all of those fish you just caught!
- If you’d prefer to stay on your boat with all those fish you just caught, cruise into the charming Elochoman Marina and enjoy an idyllic riverside stay. They also have great cabins, yurts, tent sites and restrooms/showers. I have the fondest memories of boating along the Columbia River with my Uncle Ron when I was young. We pulled into similar marinas along the river and I always dreamed of owning my own boat someday. It’s STILL ON MY LIST. Soon…
After my lovely breakfast and jaunt around downtown Cathlamet, it was time to check out the wilds of nearby Puget Island. Actually a series of islands, including the fittingly named Little Island, the area can be reached from the Julia Butler Hansen Bridge via SR-409. The islands are a goldmine of gorgeous country roads and farmland. I had a mission to check out the entire county that day, but I could’ve happily spent all day on the tiny island, aimlessly driving around and taking in the scenery.
There are indeed many farms in the area and it’s an important part of the Wahkiakum County agricultural scene, but the island also fulfills another important purpose. Traveling south on SR-409 will quickly bring you to the Wahkiakum County Ferry, located on the south side of the island. The last ferry operating on the lower Columbia, this tiny gem ferries passengers and vehicles across the river to nearby Westport, Oregon 365 days a year, all day long. Should you arrive early to the Cathlamet side, grab a spot in adjacent Buffington Park and Heritage Area for a picnic and information about the area’s history and contributions. (Note: No debit or credit cards accepted for ferry – cash/check only)
Heading back towards Cathlamet, I randomly took a few of the backroads around the island. Amazing views, sweeping farmland, hidden sloughs and beautiful scenery greeted me around every turn in the road. I initially took a right on East Little Island Road off of SR-409 and drove around the eastern tip of the island until it brought be back around to SR-409. Lovely! Puget Island is one of the most peaceful, tranquil areas I’ve visited and I fully intend on returning for further exploration.
More places to explore on Puget Island for my – and your – next journey:
- Located off the lovely East Little Island Road, Little Island Creamery produces delicious artisan cheese and butter out of their beautifully restored dairy farm. (10am to 4pm, daily – Self-serve fridge available)
- If you’re looking for a cozy place to stay while exploring Puget Island, check out Stockhouse’s Farm & Rog’s Retreat Guest Cottage. As part of their farm operation, they also host a weekly farm market on Fridays from 3pm – 6pm. (May – October)
- Should you feel like pitching a tent or lying out on the deck of your boat and stargazing, head to South Welcome Slough Campground & Moorage for a peaceful stay on a beautiful river slough. They also have a cozy lodge available should you want to take your adventure indoors.
Heading west on SR-4, the road winds and meanders inland of the river as it flows towards the Pacific Ocean. The drive is gorgeous and there are more than a few photo ops to be enjoyed. Along the way, the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge can be found off of SR-4 and Steamboat Slough Road. (Note: The refuge extends across the river into Oregon.) There isn’t a lot of hiking due to marshes, but you can boat around the islands. An amazing ecosystem awaits your exploration along with the opportunity to travel in the “steps” of Lewis and Clark. A few words of caution from the website: If your boat gets stuck in the mud, you’ll have to wait for the tides to return to loosen it. (Eeesh!)
Just a little further west on SR-4 will bring you to the sprawling Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge (It also extends across the river into Oregon) It is a huge ecosystem of birds, fish, deer, marshlands, river sloughs and more and is absolutely worth a visit. Any of the viewing areas are great for a quick visit, but check out the White Tail Trail and connecting Steamboat Slough Road for a beautiful and serene afternoon.
After taking in the lovely scene at the wildlife refuge, I continued on SR-4 towards the bucolic, riverside town of Skamokawa. (Pronounced SKA-MA-KA-WAY and means ‘Smoke on the water’ in Chinook.) Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Skamokawa has long been an important outpost in the area. Until 1917, there were no roads to the area and travel was made primarily by boat using the river and connecting sloughs. The majority of homes were built on or facing the water and had docks and boardwalks connecting them to other parts of the village. Steamboats and tugboats were common in the area and greatly contributed to the local salmon fishing and logging commerce. It was quite a bustling area in its heyday.
For a great overview of the town and its history, don’t miss a stop at the Riverlife Interpretive Center and museum. (c. 1894 – Originally known as the Central School) The displays are well-curated and showcase many examples of life in early Skamokawa as well as spectacular views of the town and river. On my recent visit, I had the pleasure of meeting Pam Emery, the president of the Friends of Skamokawa historical society. She graciously shared with me much about the town’s history along with giving me great dining and tourist recommendations for the surrounding areas. The center also features local artisan wares and I was happy to pick up a jar of delicious caramel apple butter from Island’s End Farm and a lovely bar of soap from Elochoman Valley Soapworks. Check out the center’s upcoming Deck the Hall Christmas and Holiday Open House for even more local goodies. (Nov 29 – Dec 15, check website for hours)
After learning about the area at the interpretive center, do a little exploring on your own and imagine what life on the river might’ve been like all those years ago. A few places to help you with your Skamokawa adventuring:
- Situated on an inlet of the Columbia River, the Skamokawa Resort features lodging, conference facilities, a dock, wonderful water views and a nice little general store. It is now on my bucket list to return to the area for a few days of kayaking and general relaxation. I’m sure a few hours sitting in the gazebo and taking in the view will also be a part of my plan…
- Just up the road from the Skamokawa Resort, The Duck Inn offers classic pub and diner specialties with great views of the Columbia River.
- Part of my bucket list planning will most certainly involve Columbia River Kayaking. Featuring instruction and guide services in the area, they’ve been outfitting adventures since 2003. I’m very much looking forward to gliding through the waters of the Columbia as they head out to sea…
- For amazing views of the river with awesome sandy beaches and wildlife, head to Vista Park, just past the center of Skamokawa. They have great camping spots and also feature yurts and tepee rentals! In June, take advantage of the gusty river winds and check out the Skamokawa Kite Festival. (June 28-29)
- Just a little further west on SR-4, stop by the Skamokawa Farmstead Creamery to enjoy a bit of delicious goat cheese and visit with the resident goats.
Continuing west on SR-4, keep an eye out for the Loop Road turn-off to the Grays River Covered Bridge. Located in the beautiful Grays River area, the iconic bridge is the last covered bridge in service in Washington State. Built in 1905 and on the National Register of Historic Places, the bridge is a picturesque tribute to days gone by. The surrounding Ahlberg Park and farmlands are stunning and the feeling of peace in the area is transcendent. For a gorgeous look at the countryside, cross back over the bridge and take the Loop Road side route out of the area. (It connects back to SR-4 a little further west) Once back on SR-4 stop in at Duffy’s Irish Pub for a tasty, traditional pub-style meal and a pint. You can’t miss its quirky, entirely unique exterior!
Nearing the border of Wahkiakum and Pacific Counties as well as the bridge from Washington to Oregon, I wanted to stop at a few more Lewis and Clark checkpoints before my Wahkiakum County adventure came to an end. I’d always been curious about Pillar Rock in the Altoona area, so when I saw the turn-off signs in the Rosburg area, off I went! (Pro tip: If you happen to be hungry, the Rosburg Store at the turn-off for Altoona-Pillar Rock Road offers very tasty burgers, sandwiches, pizza and soup – along with all the standard convenience store fare.)
The Altoona-Pillar Rock Road is a beautiful drive, but very winding; especially once it begins to hug the shores of the river. It’s all worth it, however. To say the views of the Columbia were stunning would be an understatement and each time I stopped to admire the view, it was hard to get back in the car.
Along the way, I stopped to investigate the Lewis and Clark road markers and learned the area was an important part of the final days of their journey. It was only a few miles up the river where on November 7th, 1805 they first spotted the Pacific Ocean and William Clark famously recorded in his journal, “Ocian in view! O! The Joy!” (His spelling, not mine) It would require several more days of stormy weather and setbacks around the nearby Dismal Nitch area, but two weeks later, the Lewis and Clark expedition miraculously and finally reached the glorious Pacific Ocean. The anticipated Northwest Passage was not to be found, but the eventual expansion of the US was due largely to all that Lewis and Clark discovered in its pursuit.
If you’d like to further take in the scene of the final days of Lewis and Clark’s trek to the ocean, there are various bed and breakfasts to be found in and around the Altoona area. (Check out VRBO or Airbnb for options) There is also the charming Rose Creek Retreat which features private campsites along the Columbia, surrounded by beautiful gardens and native plants. (April to December – No RVs or large campers)
Note: The Altoona-Pillar Rock Road culminates in a dead end on private property. The owner of the property and his dog are very nice, but I’m fairly certain they appreciate their privacy and would prefer to keep said property private. I’d recommend turning around before the road ends.
I don’t believe I spotted the actual Pillar Rock during my explorations, but I did take in some pretty amazing views. As it was a clear day, I could also see the spectacular Astoria-Megler Bridge off in the distance, heralding views of the joyous Pacific Ocean just beyond. Had I more time during my adventure, I would have taken the bridge over to nearby Astoria, Oregon; gateway to the amazing Oregon Coast as well as setting for the classic Spielberg film, Goonies. Check out the Oregon Film Museum in Astoria for more info about Goonies and other films made in the area. (And remember: Goonies never say die!)
Wrapping up my time in Wahkiakum County brought me to a place which spoke deeply to my own history and roots. Even though many of the Finnish immigrants of the late 1800s settled in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and surrounding areas (my grandmother’s family included), a large group of immigrants found their way to Washington State’s Wahkiakum and Pacific Counties. One such community is Deep River, located just near the border of Wahkiakum and Pacific Counties.
They were drawn to the area for its rich salmon fishing and timber industries, both of which were mainstays in their native Finland. (I knew there was a reason I love salmon so much – it’s in my DNA. Science!) The Finnish immigrants thrived in the area and felt a kinship with the wilds of the Northwest and its familiar bounty. While the area’s salmon and logging industries have greatly declined over the years, many families of these immigrants still call the Deep River area home. The Deep River Pioneer Lutheran Church, on the National Register of Historic Places, was completed by Finnish immigrants in 1902 and is open during the bi-annual Finnish American Folk Festival, held in the neighboring Finnish community of Naselle. (July 24-26, 2020)
On my way out of Wahkiakum County, I was tinkering with my road trip playlist when I came across a new album by Deep River resident, Krist Novoselic. Living on a farm in the area seems to have really inspired his art as Butterfly Launches from Spar Pole is a unique and interesting homage to the area’s flora and fauna. (And a definite departure from his Nirvana days) After having spent only a short time in the area, it’s easy to see how such a peaceful and historically rich setting can inspire such tribute.
Native Americans, explorers, farmers, fishermen, Finns and famous Grunge artists have all called the Wahkiakum area home over the years and it is certain to attract many more adventurous souls in years to come. I know I’m happy to have spent only a day exploring its treasures – and I intend to spend many more in the future. It may indeed be one of the smallest counties in the state, but it is filled with adventure and ever so big in heart.
Until next time, eat the state!!
Check out my Wahkiakum County playlist on SPOTIFY
- Nick of Time – Bonnie Raitt (from Nick of Time)
- Mother and Child Reunion – Paul Simon (from Paul Simon)
- My Favorite Picture of You – Guy Clark (from My Favorite Picture of You)
- Nostalgia – Wallander Version – Emily Barker, The Red Clay Halo (from Despite the Sun)
- Look What I Found – Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile (from Bass & Mandolin)
- Ashokan Farewell – Jay Ungar, Nashville Chamber Orchestra (from Harvest Home)
- Harvest Moon – Neil Young (from Harvest Moon)
- Hard Times Come Again No More – Edgar Meyer, James Taylor, Mark O’Connor, Yo-Yo Ma (from Appalachian Journey)
- Lullaby – Frantz Casseus (from Haitian Dances)
- Ada Plays – Gabriel Yared (from Cold Mountain: Music from the Miramax Motion Picture)
- Plus tôt – Alexandra Stréliski (from INSCAPE)
- Sound and Vision – David Bowie (from Sound and Vision 2013)
- Cathlamet – Hadley Caliman (from Straight Ahead)
- Your Own Sweet Way – The Notting Hillbillies (from Missing… Presumed Having A Good Time)
- Come on Up to the House – Sarah Jarosz (from Song Up in Her Head)
- Butterfly Launches from Spar Pole – Robert Michael Pyle, Krist Novoselic, Ray Prestegard (from Butterfly Launches from Spar Pole)
- Cut Me Some Slack – Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, Pat Smear (from Cut Me Some Slack)
- Buckets of Rain – Bob Dylan (from Blood on the Tracks)
- Pretty Things – Gretchen Peters (from Blackbirds (Deluxe Version))
- All Some Kind of Dream – Josh Ritter (from All Some Kind of Dream)
- Dandelion – Kacey Musgraves (from Same Trailer, Different Park)
Check out more I Ate the State adventures:
- Whatcom County
- Special Edition – Victoria B.C.
- Thurston County
- Special Edition – Puerto Vallarta: THE RETURN
- Skagit County
- Snohomish County – Part I (The Mountain Side)
- Snohomish County – Part II (The Sea Side)
- Grays Harbor County
- Special Edition – Scotland – Part I (w/special guests – London & Reykjavik!)
- Special Edition – Scotland – Part II (w/special guests – London & Reykjavik!)
- Clallam County
- Kitsap County
- Jefferson County
- Mason County
- Kittitas County
- Yakima County
- Chelan County
- Special Edition – Puerto Vallarta
- Special Edition – Ode to A Bygone Seattle