As part of the national park system, this area of Vancouver was set aside due to the significant historical role it played in the settlement of Oregon and Washington, and thus the settlement of the west.
At one time, it was thought that the Columbia River would probably be the border between British territory and American territory. This fort was established as part of a network of Hudson's Bay Company trading posts as part of the fur trade. Established in 1824, this was the most important center of activity in settling the west coast during the height of its importance. It was the headquarters of all Hudson's Bay Company activities west of the Rocky Mountains during those early years - until Victoria, in what is now British Columbia, surpassed it and became the largest English speaking city in the west.
It was here that the first steam boat in the west was put to work - connecting Fort Vancouver with the Pacific Ocean some 100 miles downstream.
It was also from here that American settlers, who arrived in the Oregon territory south of the Columbia River at what is now Oregon City, received life-giving assistance. Had it not been for the mercy of the well-established and well-equipped Hudson's Bay Company, most of the ill-equipped farmers that arrived in the area would not have survived their first few months in their new home.
Even Oregon City was a development of the Hudson's Bay Company in the early years. It was realized that the waterfalls there were an industrial force of significant importance and early industrial efforts there were Hudson's Bay Company enterprises.
In later years, treaties determined that the border between British territory and USA territory would not, in fact, be the Columbia River. Instead, it would be located quite a bit further north. Hudson's Bay Company forts remained somewhat active as trading posts into the American territorial years, but operations were slowly wound down at Fort Vancouver, on Puget Sound, and other locations where the HBC had a presence. The center for British presence on the Pacific coast became an entirely different city further north, but also named Vancouver.
The life of Fort Vancouver continued well after the HBC left, however. As an area that had already been fortified, it was an ideal location for the US Army to have its fortifications. From here were launched a number of efforts against the Native Americans.
Much later, the lands around the fort became historical for another reason: it was the early years of aircraft, and what was supposed to be the polo field at the Army Barracks had become a place for experimental aircraft. In World War I an area beside the plot became the US Army's local mill to produce aviation grade spruce lumber for the war effort.
After the war, two world famous air voyages incorporated the air field into their travels. The Douglas World Cruisers used the air field as a stopover during their first circumnavigation of the earth by air. The Soviet Union also had a crew land here as part of the first trans-polar flight. They were supposed to fly all the way to San Francisco from Moscow. However, an engine oil leak required their landing here at Vancouver instead.
Today the core of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is the reconstructed historic Fort Vancouver. (Most of the original fort burned to the ground some years after the HBC left.) Here, there are educational programs, historic displays, and archeological explorations. Surrounding the fort, there is the Pearson Air Museum and Historic Army Structures and other historic areas. One of the more unique features of the ongoing activities here is that the process of cataloging and preserving items that are discovered May be Observed in Action (see my separate tip about that).
The first place to visit at the fort is also its least attractive: the visitor's center is a modern structure on the north side of the facility, and is somewhat hidden in the trees from the historic structures. This is the best place to start your visit.
There is a charge to enter the restored fort section of the facility, but some areas of the grounds are free of charge to explore.
The Fort Vancouver area land is connected to the Columbia River and the Waterfront Renaissance Trail by the Vancouver Land Bridge.
I have a Travelogue of Photos from 2007 should you wish to look further into what is at the historic fort.
There are already tips written about Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, so I won't add too much to them (but you can read my tip about the place elsewhere). Vancouver was really the first English speaking settlement in the west, and therefore is of very significant historical interest. The buildings (see some photos of the fort) are almost completely modern reproductions, as originally the fort itself was not treated with much respect due to it being an artifact of British / Canadian settlement rather than American settlement. Today, there is considerably more respect for the importance this outpost played in early Oregon and Washington history.
There is one item I would like to add to what everyone else has written about Fort Vancouver: one of the buildings at Fort Vancouver has a viewing window, through which it is possible to watch the ongoing cataloging and documentation of the various historic artifacts that have been discovered at the fort. Some of the more interesting recent finds are put in display cases as well, so that you are able to see what the people working at the fort have found to be curious, unusual, or thought provoking.
Photo 2 shows the outside of the building where the artifacts are cataloged, analyzed and preserved, as viewed from the main entrance of the fort so that you may find it easily upon entering the grounds.
Keep in mind that this process will not be going on during the weekends, and if it is something that you really want to see, you should contact the fort to see what is going on and when the best time is to view it.
For some photos of the fort, please see my photos from 2007) that will help you get to know the fort a little bit.
There have been efforts underway to construct a walkway connection between Fort Vancouver and the Vancouver Waterfront Trail, and as you read this the connecting trail may be complete.
Frenchman's Bar Park has a narrow, steeply sloping beach along the Columbia River. There are a number of picnic tables, and a fair part of the park property is set aside as wildlife area. There is a segment of the park dedicated to beach volley ball. Some of the rest rooms close in the off-peak season.
There are frequently freighters on the river at anchor in the Columbia River at the park, which may or may not add to the scenery available at which to look - depending on how interested you are in getting a look at these vessels from such close range.
Dirt and paved trails go north and south from here, and the Frenchman's Bar Trail connects this park with Vancouver Lake Park.
From here it is possible to see parts of the Shillapoo Wildlife Refuge, and it is possible to see large flocks of geese during the winter.
How to Get Here: West on 15th Street or Mill Plain Blvd, and keep going west through the port complex. As you start to approach Vancouver Lake Park, turn left at the Vancouver Rowing Club. Continue around a sharp curve to the right, and after a few more gentle curves the entrance to the park is on the left.
UPDATE: There have been some political turmoil within the Pearson Air Musuem, and there are ongoing negotiations between the museum, the national historic site, and other parties. The hope is that the air museum will open again soon. However, as of this writing it is not open to the public. Please watch the web site below for updates.
Located on the ground of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site (and therefore incorporated into their web site), the Pearson Air Museum was once part of the military facility that came after the Hudson's Bay Company. Once part of the Army Air Corps, it is considered to be the oldest continuously operating airfield in the USA. The structure is also considered to be the oldest wooden hanger building still used to house aircraft.
You can visit and get close to pretty much all of the aircraft here, including such creatures as the 1913 Voisin III (thought to be one of only three remaining). There are also artifacts from the Russian Trans-Polar Flight, plus a number of other displays.
Displays are occasinally moved about and exchanged, and visiting exhibitions are also featured from time to time. Thus, see the museum's web site for a current list of what is on display.
Currently, the museum is open 10am to 5pm Wednesday through Saturday.
Fly-in visitors may also be accomodated, along with those that arrive by more conventional means.
Formerly "Vancouver Lake Trail" or multi-use trail.
Heading south from the main parking area at Vancouver Lake Park, there is a paved trail for biking and walking. Soon after crossing highway 501, this trail separates into a bark dust track (best for joggers and horses) and a paved trail (best for bikes). The trail is separated from the road by a wide margin in a number of places, and thus not terribly unpleasant in terms of traffic blasting past at high speed. (Though, I woiuld still be careful to use horses that don't spook easily around traffic!)
Horse riders be aware: Even though there is a horse trail section, the trail is only 2.5 miles long! You can't go any further north into the wildlife refuge after you get to Frenchman's Bar park.
The trail runs beside highway 501 for about 2.5 miles, and helps form a link between Vancouver Lake Park and Frenchman's Bar and the Shillapoo Wildlife Area. Caterpillar Island Park is in that direction too, but you need a boat to get there from the trail!
On the maps this frequently appears as a "wildlife refuge" but that is not its official name. Insead, its official name from the state of Washington is a "wildlife area". It is located to the north and west of Vancouver Lake Park and joined to that park by several routes.
The area is attractive to ducks, geese and great blue heron. The smaller birds and animals attract several different types of predator birds, and eagle sightings are not unknown. Deer are reasonably common as well.
Due to the large area it is possible to see for a long distance, and you will therefore want to bring binoculars and a telephoto lens.
Hunting is allowed here, so be careful and don't get shot if you are visiting the area.
Aside of the access from Vancouver Lake Park, there is also access from the dead end road that continues past the park, plus a number of parts of Lower River Road (highway 501).
This paved concrete trail runs along part of Vancouver's shore line with the Columbia River. Along this trail there are several restaurants, a new condominium complex, and some nice (not spectacular, but nice) views of the Columbia River and Oregon on the other side of the river.
The city of Vancouver claims the trail is 4 miles long, but it seems a lot shorter to me.
A new link called the Vancouver Land Bridge is now in service, which connects the western area of this trail along the river to Old Apple Tree Park and then crosses over highway 14 to Fort Vancouver. This link creates a vast walkable area free of conflict with any extremely high traffic roads.
There are several beaches along the trail, but they are small and probably of not much interest to those who are serious about beaches. However, despite their small size, this type of riverfront beach is what is available in the area. Thus, this is where people come.
Signs along the trail provide some local information and history.
During a really nice day, the parking lot for the park will be very crowded. Continue east on SE Columbia Way where there is parallel parking along the street near the condominium.
If you need an address to start at, try 100 Columbia St, Vancouver, WA 98660
Check out Fort Vancouver and the Officers row, learn about the Hudson Bay fur trading operation and how the northwest was settled. Get some heritage seeds to plant in your garden, they are free.
Watch live demonstrations throught the day, at the blacksmith shop and carpenter shop.
Go on an Archeological tour.
Walk or drive down officers row see the historics homes.
See the Pearson Air Museum.
Daily Hours for all Buildings
October 1 to February 28: 10:00am to 4:00pm daily
March 1 to September 30: 9:00am to 5:00pm daily
Closed on November 28, December 24-25, and December 31, 2002
From I-5, take the Mill Plain exit and head east. Turn south onto Fort Vancouver Way. At the traffic circle, go east on Evergreen Boulevard and follow signs to the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center. The reconstructed fort site is south of the visitor center - follow the parkroad which connects the visitor center parking lot to the fort parking lot.
From I-205, go west on Highway 14 about six miles, then take I-5 north. From I-5, take the Mill Plain exit and head east. Turn south onto Fort Vancouver Way. At the traffic circle, go east on Evergreen Boulevard and follow signs to the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center. The reconstructed fort site is south of the visitor center - follow the park road which connects the visitor center parking lot to the fort parking lot.
When people talk about Fort Vancouver, most of the time they have in mind the wooden replica that, as much as possible, replicates the old Hudson's Bay Company outpost. However, when it was officially decided that what is now the State of Washington would be part of the USA rather than British territory, Fort Vancouver became part of a US military center. A considerable part of the land around the fort structure is a historic military facility on its own.
Vancouver Barracks dates from 1849
Officers Row is somewhat north of the fort structure, and has a number of early Vancouver homes that were used by officers in the Army
Pearson Air Park is one of the oldest operating air fields in the country, and is to the east of the fort structure. Depending on when you want to measure the start date, this air field has made aviation history from 1905. Today, that same historic airfield is the Pearson Air Museum, which is an attraction in its own right.
Vancouver Lake is a huge lake to the west of Vancouver. The park runs along the western edge of the lake, and has a number of recreational opportunities including a little bit of hiking (trails lead from here to the national wildlife refuge and to other parks), picnic tables, wading in the lake, and some very large empty fields that could be used for all manner of things.
There are two really nice playgrounds as well.
One of the nice things about the park is that about 4 miles beyond the park, the highway comes to a sudden end, with no particular destinations between the park and the end of the road. This means that the park has no loud highways nearby, and except for people having fun it is a nice place to relax.
Birds frequent the park and surrounding wildlife refuge, and a number of nests are visible once the leaves fall off the trees.
A trail (hiking, bike and horseback) leads from here northward to the edge of the wildlife refuge and south and west to other parks.
On a clear day it is possible to see Mt. St. Helens and other interesting nearby features.
There is a toll booth at the entrance to the park, and it is necessary to pay to enter during busy times of the year.
This day spa is a haven of quiet & luxurious delight. It looks unimpressive squeezed next to the Bally's gym but looks deceive. Inside, you can get a variety of hair & skin treatments along with manicure, pedicure, a whole menu of massage options and finish all with a cup of tea, cookies, and magazines in the "tranquility room."
They use Decleor products (and will give a small but non-coersive spiel about purchasing them) so everything smells heavenly. There is a cozy changing room, if you need it, with unbelievably plush robes.
I have gotten a haircut, eyebrow wax, basic Swedish massages, and numerous manicures & pedicures - never a complaint! Everyone is professional & pleasant, the prices are reasonable considering the level of service, quality of products used, and comforting atmosphere.
Men are welcome (my husband likes it!) though children & cell phones are not, of course. Whole & half day packages are available (with lunch!), and make a fantastic splurge.
This reconstructed fort is an ongoing archaeological expedition that allows visitors to watch & interact. You can take a guided tour (recommended for your first visit) and get to know the buildings & their history. Locals volunteer to be reenactors in the various settings, which is particularly fun during special events like candlelight tours & ghost stories.
Most of the buildings (jail, lookout post, fur prep room, general store, blacksmith, kitchen, main house, carpenter, counting room) have hands-on props and activities; all have detailed stories posted about former residents of the fort.
The fort is part of the National Parks service so there is a small fee ($5/family, good for 7 days), but it is quite worth it for a look into our town's history.
Pearson Air Museum is located in the heart of Vancouver's National
Historic Reserve at 1115 E 5th, Vancouver, WA 9866.
Unfortunately it was closed when I visited the nearby fort.
But I could admire the beautiful DC-3 displayed outside.
Fort Vancouver was established in 1825 and operated as the administrative headquarters for the Hudson's Bay Company. Located on the north bank of the Columbia River, the fort became a collection point for furs being shipped to London. However, it wasn't just about furs! The fort also had a trade store, sawmill, grist mill, dairy and shops. There were also agricultual and livestock pursuits. Interestingly, Fort Vancouver was known as the "New York of the West".
Tour the reconstructed Fort. There are living history demonstrations in the kitchen, blacksmith shop, carpenter shop and bakehouse. My favorite tour is the Chief Factor's house.
Entrance fee is $5.00 for familes ($3 for an individual). These fees allows you to come and go for 7 days.
We usually take one hour to tour, but if you are a first-timer, plan on two hours.
There are a range of activities throughout the summer.
This is and active volcano which had quite an erruption about 20 years ago. There are some great outlooks and its an easy road to drive. You can still see the damage done by the erruption and there are great views of the volcano. good wildlife sightings as well.