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Astoria Riverwalk and trolley © City of AstoriaMaritime Memorial at sunset © Rosemary Johnson
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Trail of the Month: August 2009
Oregon's Astoria Riverwalk

Astoria, Ore., has a rather choice location. The port city of 10,000 sits on the southern bank of the Columbia River, right where it spills into the Pacific Ocean at the state line between Oregon and Washington. Built on steep bluffs that bulge up from the shoreline, Astoria looks out across the water at the hazy hillsides of Washington. Piers and outcroppings command views up and down the waterway, and the river mouth is alive with barking sea lions, great blue herons, eagles and fish of every fin and flipper.

Explorers cast a longing eye on the spot at least as early as 1792, when Captain Robert Gray first nosed his vessel, the Columbia, into the river and named it. Two years earlier, the Rhode Island-born merchant had become the first American to circumnavigate the globe in the same ship.

These days, you won't need a ship to tour the area. In fact, since the city built the 5.1-mile Astoria Riverwalk through downtown and on the waterfront, it's never been easier to explore the maritime community and see what generations of pioneers and travelers have stopped to admire.

As part of a plan to revitalize the waterfront, the pathway had a somewhat unusual mandate from the community. Locals wanted a working trail designed to suit the needs of residents first, and tourists second, says Rosemary Johnson, a city planner who has worked with the Riverwalk from its conception. "When you're thinking of tourists, a lot of times you're thinking of what will draw them as a destination," she says. "The locals needed something comfortable and easy to use, and that didn't get into grandiose designs."

The city therefore focused less on spendier attractions, like an aquarium, and more on blending the pathway in with the topography and complementing existing development. Trail construction also enabled the city to spruce up derelict buildings and spur new growth on the waterfront. Pocket parks and picnic tables, benches and doggy bag stands, viewing towers and overlooks made the Riverwalk a useful and welcoming amenity for the community. And in a city short on flat terrain, the rail-grade pathway became an instant boon for easygoing mobility.

"It's become our living room," says Johnson. "Everybody uses it."

Of course, she says, what residents have come to embrace, out-of-towners can appreciate equally. You can fish off the docks or watch the river pilots and ocean-going vessels cruise through the river. The Astoria-Megler Bridge, the largest truss bridge in the world, arcs across the western horizon, and old pilings from former canneries and fish processors still stand out in the river—perfect perches for all kinds of birds. The fishing industry still very much survives today, and you can get a peek at the day's catch right along the trail. "You can stop and talk to the fish processors," says Johnson. "They'll show you what a sardine looks like."

Another big draw at the far eastern end of the Riverwalk are the sea lions sunning out on the docks or on the banks of the river. You can hear their barking all over the city.

If you don't have inline skates or a bicycle, and if five miles seems like a long way to walk out and back to the ends of the Riverwalk, you can rest your legs and hop aboard the Astoria Riverfront Trolley, which runs right alongside the trail. With a little seed money from the city, locals restored and then purchased an early 1900s trolley from a museum in San Antonio. They built a barn to house the car, and now trolley service is run entirely by volunteers. For $1, you can ride as far as you want, and the motormen and conductors tell stories of local lore and history (including pointing out the house from the movie The Goonies).

Feeding off the Riverwalk's popularity, the city continues to grow the trail. It shares a railbanked Burlington Northern Santa Fe line, connecting the city's port to the west with 40th Street. The first two-block segment opened in 1995, and plans are underway to extend the trail at both ends, including to Tongue Point on the east.

A combination of federal, state and private funding, and an enormous amount of volunteer work, contribute to keeping the trail in great shape. But the city—which owns and oversees the Riverwalk—has also kept construction and improvements moving along through partnerships with private developers. If a new business, like a hotel, is building along the trail, the city works with them to improve their section of trailfront. Construction has to meet standards of width and materials, but businesses can otherwise specially tailor their section.

The result is a Riverwalk that uniquely reflects the people and personality of Astoria. Pieced together block by block, year by year, the pathway has become a lightning rod of activity and growth in the city. It's brought new commerce to the waterfront and provided a common space for residents to enjoy and interact. As Johnson says, "It was a trail for our people first." Luckily, the folks of Astoria are more than happy to share their Riverwalk, so accept the invitation and see what has the community beaming.

For more information, photos and user reviews of the trail, or to post your own comments, please visit TrailLink.com.

This month's Trail of the Month is generously sponsored by:

 

Related Links

Astoria & Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce

TrailLink.com

 

Trail Facts

Name: Astoria Riverwalk

Trail Web site: www.astoria-usa.com/astoria-hikes.html

Length: 5.1 miles

Counties: Clatsop

Start Point/ End Point: Port of Astoria to 40th Street


Surface type:
& Asphalt

Uses: Walking, jogging, bicycling and inline skating; the trail is also wheelchair accessible.

Difficulty: Easy

Access and Parking: The best way to locate driving directions and parking options is to log into TrailLink.com to access the map for the trail. Registration is free, and you will be able to search maps for all other trails in the database. Using these interactive GIS maps, you can zero in on the street level and locate icons denoting trailheads and parking areas.

Nearby Attractions: Every Sunday from May to October, a three-block stretch of downtown along 12th Street shuts down from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for the Astoria Sunday Market. Say goodbye to car traffic and hello to fresh fruits and vegetables, farm products, garden goods, arts and crafts, woodworks, live music and plenty of festive community cheer. All the local vendors have either grown or made what they are selling. (Pick out a snack and head over to the Maritime Memorial Park for a quick picnic.)

Filmmakers are among the many admirers of Astoria. A number of movies have been shot in the community, including Kindergarten Cop, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, Short Circuit, Come See the Paradise, Free Willy and The Goonies. You can pick up a guide to movie locations at the Astoria & Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce for $2.

The views from the Riverwalk are plenty captivating. Yet if you have hankering for totally unobstructed vistas, then don't miss the Astoria Column, which rises like a lighthouse from the highest point in the city on Coxcomb Hill. Prepare for an "Oh, wow!" moment at the top, where you can soak in the scenery of the Columbia River, Pacific Ocean and miles and miles of surrounding countryside. Built in 1926, the Astoria Column is 125 feet high and has 164 steps winding to the top. Follow signs on 16th or 14th streets to reach the Column.

The Astoria-Megler Bridge makes an impressive backdrop © City of Astoria

Hills of Washington in the distance across the river © City of Astoria

Replica of the Lady Washington, once captained by Robert Gray © City of Astoria

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