Columbia County, located 20 miles northwest of Portland, takes its name from the storied Columbia River, which forms its eastern and northern border, flowing past tracts of emerald forest and creating a scenic backdrop for boaters and anglers alike. Yet the river is hardly the only way to make a splash here. From bird-watching on Scappoose Bay to cruising newly minted bike paths or exploring the historic community of St. Helens, Columbia County offers countless family-friendly escapes from city life.
Scappoose Bay provides a scenic introduction to the region’s outdoor scene. This long channel, which feeds into the Columbia River, teems with great blue herons, bald eagles and seasonal runs of steelhead and salmon. Explore the marshes here with a guided outing from Scappoose Bay Paddling Center. The three-hour wetland tour features beginner-friendly kayaks and frequent sightings of river otters and a host of migratory birds.
Back on dry land, the river city of St. Helens is home to a charming “Old Towne” district, a burgeoning artists’ community and down-home eateries like Houlton Bakery, where turkey or corned-beef sandwiches come on oven-hot bread. On Saturdays, try the house specialty: deep-dish pizza in a half-dozen varieties.
A few years ago, director Catherine Hardwicke chose Old Towne St. Helens as the setting for several scenes in the first Twilight film. At Experience Twilight, Steven Kidd offers guided walking and van tours to familiar sites from the movie. Stops include the white clapboard house on South Sixth Street where Bella lived with her father, and Thunderbird & Whale (a building that stood in as a bookshop where Bella learns about the Quileute werewolf myth).
After an afternoon of spooky sites, the Klondike, an old-school-style steak house, will offer plenty of dinner conversation for the kids: Quartered in the 1900s-era St. Helens Hotel, the restaurant is said to be haunted by friendly ghosts. Walk off your meal at Columbia View Park, where, on Thursday nights from June through September, nearly the entire town gathers on the lawn for 13 Nights on the River, an outdoor concert series with crowd-pleasing performers and views of serene sailboats and oceangoing freighters on the river.
From here, it’s a short drive to the Best Western Oak Meadows Inn. This dog-friendly hotel sports an indoor pool and hot tub for unwinding and also serves a loaded breakfast buffet.
Early morning on the Columbia River usually means that the fish are biting — which makes it a perfect time to hook up with local guide Dan Porter. A Northwest native, Porter has spent the last 20 years helping aspiring anglers land salmon, steelhead and sturgeon on the river. Arrive at the marina in Goble (10 miles downriver from St. Helens), with your fishing license and harvest tag and Porter takes care of the rest, including the boat (he has three), top-notch equipment (North Fork Composite rods with Shimano reels) and expertise to land the catch of the day.
Back on shore, the Crown Zellerbach Trail, a logging-road cum bicycle path provides a worthy destination. The trail repurposes an abandoned logging route that once connected the river city of Scappoose to Vernonia, a timber town in the hills to the west. No wheels? Stop by Barlow Bikes, which offers great deals on a fleet of rentals. Along the path you’re likely to encounter sunlight filtering through the cracks of a fir-and-maple canopy, views of snowy Mount St. Helens, and a natural soundtrack courtesy of whispering Scappoose Creek.