Walking Washington's Riverfronts
Rumors about “the mighty river of the West” drew early explorers from around the world, looking for a waterway across the North American continent.
From the Pacific Ocean, they found and named the Columbia River, but it did not go where they hoped it would. After 200 miles it turns north rather than leading east.
Although the explorers were disappointed, the rivers of Washington have boosted the growth and vitality of our state’s cities for centuries. Vancouver, Yakima, the Tri-Cities, Wenatchee, Spokane and Everett all flourished on the banks of powerful rivers. Several cities have reclaimed these heavily used riverfronts for recreation. You can walk or bike for miles through urban history. The trails are mostly paved and relatively flat.
Begin in Vancouver, on the lower Columbia. The American Robert Gray named the river, but it was an English explorer who put Vancouver Point on a map. A British fur-trading company chose this point for its headquarters. When canoe-loads of furs were paddled down the river, more than a thousand people gathered at Fort Vancouver, making it the first real city in the Pacific Northwest in the 1820s. A century and more later, thousands of workers streamed to shipyards in Vancouver during two world wars.
To celebrate its relationship to the river and transform an industrial waterfront into more friendly space, Vancouver has strung together more than five miles of the Columbia River Renaissance Trail. It begins at Waterfront Park, 115 Columbia Way. Sidewalks and paved trails lead through parks, along beaches and past new housing developments on the wide, placid but busy river. Right at the beginning, across Columbia Way on a crosswalk, is a spur trail under the railroad line to the Land Bridge. At significant places along the lower Columbia River, artist Maya Lin has redesigned landmarks at the confluence of Native American, European and American cultures. The land bridge reconnects the river to the fort plain, now the Fort Vancouver National Historic Preserve, worth a day’s rambling on its own.
One mile farther along is a bronze statue of Ilchee, a member of the powerful Chinook tribe who controlled the lower Columbia in the early 1800s. A short distance beyond is Wendy Rose, a stainless-steel welder sporting a jaunty red bandanna. At three-and-a-half miles is a side-trail to the Kaiser Viewing Tower, overlooking the former shipyards where more than 140 Victory ships were built during World War II, many welded by women. The trail continues another 1.5 miles to Wintler Park.
From Vancouver, follow the Columbia River 200 miles upstream as it flows over rapids now buried by dams. Past the Cascade Mountains, the hills above the river are dry and brown. Where the Columbia turns north at the Tri-Cities is where hope ended for a waterway across the continent.
But two other rivers, the Snake and the Yakima, flow into the Columbia here from the east and the west. Native Americans lived and fished at the confluence for more than 11,000 years. Tribes gathered in great numbers when the salmon swam up the Columbia. Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery canoed down the Snake and arrived at the Columbia on October 16, 1805, knowing they had found the last leg of their journey across the continent. The Indians invited the Corps to join them in a smoke and an exchange of food and gifts.