Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery traveled along the Columbia River on their way to the Pacific Ocean. We can follow their trek and learn about their discoveries along the river today. Interpretive signs and reconstruction of Native structures they may have encountered dot the beaches where they are known to have camped.
About the Lewis and Clark Expedition
The Corps of Discovery was a special unit of the United States Army commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson. The group of over 30 men became the core of the Lewis and Clark Expedition that took place between May of 1804 and September of 1806.
The Corps of Discovery was led by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark. Their goal was to explore the West to study plants, animals and geography, as well as to look for economic opportunities.
They were to begin in St. Louis, Missouri to explore the lands of the Louisiana Purchase, develop trade relationships and claim U.S. sovereignty over the native people along the Missouri River.
Similarly, the president tasked Lewis and Clark with finding the Northwest Passage and claiming U.S. sovereignty over the people and territories in the Pacific Northwest and Oregon territory. While their work included exploration and documentation, the economic importance of their role was paramount.
Stories of the expedition, like those in the Ken Burns PBS film, Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, include tales of the young men in the expedition, French-Canadian boatmen, William Clark’s African-American slave, and the Shoshone woman Sacajawea and her infant son, nicknamed Pompey.
Lewis and Clark Travel the Columbia River to the Pacific
As they travelled, Lewis and Clark kept a detailed diary and sketchbook, so their travels are well documented. Lewis and Clark reached the Columbia River on October 16, 1805. Using canoes, they traveled along the Columbia, stopping to portage around treacherous areas.
On November 7, 1805, Meriwether Lewis thought he saw the Pacific Ocean. In reality, it was the estuary of the Columbia at Grays Bay. They encountered the Clatsop Indians and did some trading for food.
Finally, on November 15, 1805, Lewis and Clark saw the Pacific Ocean. This confirmed that the Northwest Passage, which they were tasked with discovering, didn’t actually exist. Lewis and Clark established a camp in the area, hunted, fished and traded with the Clatsop and Chinook Indians.
They wintered on the coast and built two cabins at Fort Clatsop. It was a difficult winter, but they still managed to document the region’s plant and animal life. They hunted elk for food and clothing. They also worked on maps so that others could follow their route in the future.
Lewis and Clark in Clark County
The Corps’ return journey up the Columbia commenced on March 23, 1806, and took most of April.
On March 31, 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark stopped their journey along the Columbia River and set up camp at Cottonwood Beach, near the current-day Washougal. They had noticed the beach on their journey down the river and considered it for a winter camp, but pressed on toward the ocean.
At the stop on the return journey, they replenished supplies for their trip through the Columbia River Gorge. They were at Cottonwood Beach for six days. It is said this is the longest stay in the area we now call Clark County.
From Cottonwood Beach, William Clark also discovered the Willamette River when he and a group of men did some exploring. As they traveled up and down the Columbia before that, they had completely missed the confluence of the two rivers.
Visiting Cottonwood Beach
Almost 200 years later, in celebration of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in 2006, the Captain William Clark Regional Park at Cottonwood Beach was opened. The park is one of the few named for Capt. William Clark, who drew detailed maps and documented the natives encountered by the Corps of Discovery. His maps have been useful to Native Americans, providing proof of where their ancestors lived.
Cottonwood Beach is approximately one mile long, upstream of Steamboat Landing and just downstream of Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. There is a parking lot at South 32nd Street in Washougal.
My preference is to walk the Lewis and Clark Heritage Trail and look out over the Columbia where the Corps of Discovery traveled. To walk the trail on the dike, you can park in the area of the Pendleton Woolen Mills store and enter via the pedestrian tunnel.
The Lewis and Clark Heritage Trail, also known as The Columbia River Dike Trail, follows the Columbia River from Steamboat Landing Park to the border of the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Just about a mile up the trail, you’ll see structures reminiscent of Chinook long houses. That is the entrance to Cottonwood Beach. The structures contain Lewis and Clark interpretive information and maps.
When you visit, you’ll understand why Lewis and Clark camped on the large beach with shady cottonwoods. It’s a sheltered area with room for the Corps to camp. There are canoe replicas, making it easy to envision how the area looked when they camped.
In addition to the existing water access at Cottonwood Beach, the 93-acre park also
features multi-use trails, restrooms, historic interpretive elements, picnic shelters and parking lots.
Learning More About Lewis and Clark
One of the best places to get a sense of Lewis and Clark’s journey to the Pacific Ocean is at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at Cape Disappointment on the Long Beach Peninsula.
Exhibits at this museum in Long Beach focus on the history of Lewis and Clark’s experiences at the mouth of the Columbia River and include an award winning film, Dreams and Discovery: Lewis and Clark’s Arrival at the Pacific. While you are in the area, you can take a walk on the Discovery Trail and experience the coastal area that the Corps explored in November of 1805.
Another place to visit that will complete your explorations of the Corps of Discovery’s journey is Fort Clatsop on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. There you can see a replica of the cabins where the Corps wintered and learn from the exhibits and films at the Visitors Center. Daily costumed programs and other ranger-led activities are scheduled during the summer months, beginning mid-June and ending Labor Day weekend.