Columbia County is a quiet area of Oregon located north of popular Portland. The population is just over 50,000 people, who mostly live in small towns lining the mighty Columbia River. This includes my hometown of Scappoose — now considered a bedroom community of Portland due to the convenient location on a beautifully scenic and easy highway only 15 miles away. This highway also passes by Sauvie Island, a rural and bountiful land formed by glacial silt developing at the bend of the powerful arterial river. Then, quietly existing deep in the forest of douglas fir, miles away from water, is the tiny timber town of Vernonia.
Vernonia just may be the most well-known place that no one’s visited, largely because all the small towns along the Columbia River, from Astoria to Scappoose, seem to display signs directing to this forestry hub. This is probably because in timber days, the logs harvested from the rich rolling coastal mountains were distributed in all directions through the spokes toward deeper water ports for milling and shipping.
One such spoke was the Crown Zellerbach Railroad, which connected the timber camps on the side of hills in the interior to a water-side log depot in Scappoose. The trains eventually gave way to a logging express dedicated to the thundering eighteen-wheelers loaded with massive stripped trees. A regular public highway shot up along the same general route and now winds through managed forests for 17 miles between Vernonia and Scappoose.
This article focuses around a day trip from Portland to Vernonia and then along the historic logging route of the Scapoose-Vernonia Highway, finishing up with exploring the agricultural wonder of Sauvie Island.
All of the places on the itinerary could easily be their own quick jaunt from Portland and the following itinerary provides a scenic and relaxing way to wind them all together in a day trip getaway. There are a lot of great stops along this route, highlighted in red color on the map.
Weather and planning in the Pacific Northwest
If living anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, you know that the weather can always be wet west of the Cascade Mountains any time of year. Take layers, especially because early mornings any time of year can be cool, opening up to warmer afternoons and evenings. Once the sun sets, the usual is back to hoodie conditions. While Vernonia is only 630 feet elevation compared to Scappoose and Sauvie Island at sea-level altitude, the feeling is of a mountain town and temperatures adjust accordingly.
The Pacific Northwest doesn’t present with obvious heat and beach-like conditions, but the sun still has power, especially in the summer. Be mindful of the rays and be sure to wear sunscreen and take plenty of water if planning longer hikes — especially if planning some time at Sauvie Island Beach.
It might also be a good idea to have a cooler bag along to store snacks and drinks for picnic areas, in addition to water, cups and extra hand sanitizer. The Pacific Northwest is in various phases of re-opening the economy, depending on the county. Most restaurants offer take-out and some degree of dining that involves outside seating and/or open windows/doorways to keep air flowing. Still, keep in mind there could be limited services available along the way and plan accordingly.
Portland day trip — get an early start
The earlier the better, especially in the summer and weekends. This itinerary utilizes Highway 26 from Portland and Highway 30 back to Portland, which both get busier as the day goes on. While Vernonia is very light on congestion and the Scappoose-Vernonia Highway is usually a breeze, Sauvie Island can get very busy in late afternoons in summer and weekends in the fall.
Start the trip heading northwest on Highway 26 toward Cannon Beach and turn right on Highway 47, not far after the Dairy Queen, near Buxton toward Vernonia. The forest hamlet of Columbia County isn’t even an hour away from Portland but… life feels much different here. It’s difficult to get lost here and the main thoroughfare offers a glimpse into pioneer towns across Oregon that popped up in the mid-1800’s. Get out to stretch the legs and consider Blue House Cafe for yummy Mediterranean cuisine, while Black Iron Coffee House can refresh a need for java jolt.
Vernonia is intertwined with the Nehalem River which is prone to flooding — you might notice most houses have been raised up on blocks above high water level. Follow the bubbling river to intersect with the Scappoose-Vernonia Highway. Any time of year, this winding road offers the mystical wonders of fir tree forests, juxtaposed with clear cut logging which is still an economic driver for the area.
Crown Zellerbach Trail
Back in the early days, there were no well-developed ways to transport timber from the inland to waterways, so Crown-Zellerbach, which was a forestry company, developed a rail line to run between the logging camps around Vernonia to Scappoose. The railroad eventually evolved to a narrow trucking express. Eventually, during the Great Depression, a county highway was built on land that ran mostly parallel with the logging road. Today, the former timber road is converted into parks and trails for any duration of hike, bike and in some areas ride horses. There is never a worry about too many people in these parts, but be warned: be sure not to trespass on any land!
The route begins off Knott Street in Vernonia at the Holce Trailhead and comes up for air along the highway seven more times before concluding 22 miles away along the river in Scappoose near Chapman Landing Trailhead. The trail still winds through active logging areas, so check signs at the trailheads for closed portions. Stop at one of the trailheads for any amount of hiking — I like the area around the Nehalem Divide and Bonnie Falls.
If up for a little adventure, stop at the Bonnie Falls trailhead and carefully cross the highway to the rocky falls. On a hot day it’s likely the local youth will be swan diving into the refreshing water below.
The name of my hometown is memorable and means “water with gravelly bottom” in Chinook. Before a dike was built to hold back the flowing waters of the Columbia Slough, water covered the land reaching parts of Highway 30 most of the year and the native tribes would boat to Scappoose to trade with one another. Today the quiet town boasts amazing views of the Cascade Mountains — including easy viewing of Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood.
It’s easy to take the Scappoose-Vernonia Highway directly to the junction with Highway 30, but for great mountain views consider an early exit (just after the Pisgah Trailhead) onto Wickstrom Road. Then, continue across Highway 30 to West Lane Road and round back into the tiny downtown of Scapppoose, where you’ll find delicious Bamford Bakeshop and Cathedral Coffee.
About a mile past the giant red Scappoose Peace Candle (which used to be the actual largest candle in the world) Joy Creek and Means nurseries offer gardening delights.
Sauvie Island, Oregon
Sauvie Island is a bastion of nature formed by sediment collected as the Columbia River made a major turn north. The nutrient rich soil is great for agriculture, and today the island is mostly farms and a wildlife reserve amongst an intricate series of lakes and waterways, centered around Sturgeon Lake. The island is essentially within the city limits of Portland, but with only one simple grocery store, the feel is very rural. Country peace and quiet.
Although the winter months serve up mostly dormant fields, the wildlife reserve always holds unique beauty along with opportunities to watch birds. The island comes alive in the summer and fall, attracting u-pick enthusiasts, bicyclists and nature lovers. Then comes an October craze with the world searching for The Great Pumpkin at one of the local farms with corn mazes and other autumn fun.
No matter what time of year, make this stop to commune with nature. Procure some fresh produce at one of the stands and head to Howell Territorial Park, or with more time venture to the farther side of the island to Sauvie Island Beach. But be aware, the hippie culture that made Portland famous is alive and well with a clothing optional stretch of beach.
Plant lovers will “ooh and ah” at Cistus Nursery which offers interesting and rare varieties of plants, both indoors in a greenhouse and around the external yard area. Pumpkin catching and fall mazes are popular at the Pumpkin Patch and Bella Organic Farm, on the south side of the island.
Return home from a Portland day trip refreshed
This itinerary won’t be found on many day trips from Portland lists, but I love the slower pace and non-touristy fashion of true nature steeped destinations — only a stone’s throw from busier alternatives. From frolicking in the forest to bird watching at a peaceful refuge, this day will provide fresh air, few crowds, and open road that frees the mind to bask in a refreshing road trip.