The path less trodden to adventures in fall
written by James Sinks
Fittingly, for a movie about off-duty Halloween monsters, Disney producers scouted for a ghost town.
They found a perfect backdrop in northwest Oregon’s St. Helens. The mills were long gone, but the once-busy downtown boasted a picturesque public square, a classic courthouse and a stunning view of its namesake, Mount St. Helens, 39 miles away across the Columbia.
Filmed a quarter century ago, Halloweentown became a cult classic and even spawned several sequels. Soon after, cameras returned for the vampire-teen romance mashup Twilight, in which St. Helens stood in for another timber town, Forks, Washington.
Now, each autumn when Mother Nature readies her technicolor picture show, St. Helens unpacks the nostalgia, costumes and cash registers. For six weeks, downtown and the central plaza—where usually you can trace Lewis and Clark’s voyage on stepping stones—are transformed into the “Spirit of Halloweentown.”
City Hall doesn’t become a mummy hotel like in the movie, but nowadays you’ll find pirates, aliens, a parade, a haunted house and photo ops everyplace, said Colleen Ohler, the self-appointed Queen of Halloweentown. Dressed as royalty, she totes a microphone as the emcee for the costumed hordes on weekends from mid-September to the big day on Oct. 31.
“It’s like being back in the ’50s, everything is fun and pure,” she said.
At least, as pure as you can get with pirates.
St. Helens actually was named in the ’50s—as in the 1850s. Founder Henry Montgomery Knighton, a New Englander, initially called it Plymouth. Then it was briefly “Kasenau” in honor of a just-deceased legendary Chinookan chief, whose village once stood nearby. In 1850, it became St. Helens, and soon after, it became the county seat.
Established where four rivers meet and across from the northernmost tip of Sauvie Island, the city was touted as a major Columbia River port. But Portland, just upriver, ultimately won most of that business.
Today, St. Helens and neighboring Scappoose are often seen as Portland bedroom communities or pitstops on the way to the coast, which may help explain why the area is oft overshadowed as a destination—with the notable exception of Sauvie Island and its summertime beaches (one with the fun combination of mosquitos and nudity) and its farm bounty.
With nature’s picture show unfolding and apparitions aprowl, fall is the perfect time to learn what you’ve been missing.
PADDLING • TWILIGHT • STOCK CARS
If you’ve never veered off U.S. Highway 30 in Columbia County, flip on the turn signal and prepare to be surprised.
The meandering waterway that separates Sauvie Island from the rest of Oregon is known as Multnomah Channel, and as the channel nears St. Helens, it connects with tree-lined and farm-fronted Scappoose Bay, a nearly year-round placid paddling playground. From above, the inlet and connected blotches of wetlands look like a watery Rorschach test, and you can see it many ways via a basketweave of canals, small lakes and meandering creeks.
At Scappoose Bay Marine Center, launch kayaks for $5, or rent from Next Adventure. They also rent foot-pedaled versions, which are hands-free to accommodate fishing. (Don’t eat the fish, though—a legacy of industrial pollution.)
Next up, time to see some spirits, or drink some.
Downtown St. Helens feels like a trip back in time, with the Columbia Theatre and its red-and-white marquee, the bell tower-topped courthouse, and quirky storefronts on First Street. At Jilly’s Beverly Hills Shopping, there’s a Betty Boop out front while inside you’ll find sparkly hats, wings and wigs. Twilight fans will recognize the nearby white two-story house—now a vacation rental—that was home for Bella, who was quite popular with the supernatural fellas.
If Halloweentown daily festivities have ended, you can still snap selfies with the oversized pumpkin in the plaza, a skeleton-driven taxi and an ornate carved totem pole of jack-o-lanterns.
On the shoreline, visit an amphitheater; a statue of Lewis and Clark’s Newfoundland dog, Seaman; and at the civic marina, you’ll find big boats. Next door, the gravel expanse that once was the veneer mill is platted to become condos, shops and a hotel.
At Big River Taproom, with a front-row seat of the Columbia, you’ll find twenty-one beers and six Oregon wines on tap. You’ll also routinely hear surprised visitors say they had no idea the town is so pretty, said owner Marci Sanders.
Marci and her husband previously owned a Chicago-style hot dog place in north Portland, and you’ll find wieners many ways at Big River, including a vegetarian version called a Tree Hugger. There’s also hot and cold sandwiches, seasonal salads and mustard squeeze bottles on the tables.
Depending on the day and your noise tolerance, cheer stock car racers into the night at the River City Speedway, a clay oval at the fairgrounds. Or, in the mood for movie magic? There are few ways better than a new release at the old-time Columbia Theatre.
GRAVEL TRAILS • KLONDIKE TAVERN
Originally called Yankeetown, unincorporated Yankton—five miles west of St. Helens—doesn’t offer much notable to see besides the wooden local general store, with a hitching post.
And that’s fine: Yankton Store is why you’re here.
Inside, next to the beer coolers, you’ll find a five-table restaurant section with a big-appetite-taming menu. The grill opens at 6 a.m., and you can order the triple star breakfast (with all the meats)—as well as cowboy burgers—all day.
The dense forestscape of Columbia County once was laced with logging railroads. Now, most are trails.
The Crown Z Trail (pulp and paper company Crown Zellerbach was a onetime owner) stretches 25 miles from the waterfront to the mill town of Vernonia. Unlike the better known Banks-Vernonia State Trail, which is paved, Crown Z is mostly packed gravel—so suited for fat-tire biking, hiking or horses. If you don’t have bikes, rent them at Barlow Bike & Board. They don’t rent horses, sadly.
Designated this year as a National Recreation Trail, the Crown Z route has some steep grades and can make for a long day, but offers several access points for shorter segments.
However you travel, it’s worth heading to Vernonia, a onetime boomtown nestled among the turning leaves in the Nehalem River Valley. Now home to about 2,000 people, the city made headlines for flooding over of the years, but most days you’ll have no problem exploring old logging equipment and visiting Bridge Street retailers and eateries like Black Iron Grill, with a bar and patio, or Blue House Cafe, with Mediterranean tapas.
Columbia River dredging helped to create a sandy, 32-acre island just offshore from St. Helens—and partyers used to create a bad reputation for it. Known, appropriately enough, as Sand Island, the place has been cleaned up and now includes a campground and day-use beaches, and can be reached via shuttle boat. Check first when it’s running.
If the island isn’t accessible, the in-town Columbia Botanical Garden is a good spot for a stroll before reservations at the Klondike Tavern, where you’ll find surf, turf and verve in the downtown building that was once the St. Helens Hotel. The place also has brunch on Saturdays and Sundays, and is closed Mondays.
Browse craft cocktails and then good luck choosing among paella, ribeye, coho or the Hoppin’ John, a zesty cajun vegetarian stew. Then, cheesecake or chocolate torte.
And then, sweet dreams.
MAC-AND-CHEESE BURGERS • MINIMAL CLOTHING
The name “Plymouth” did not stick for St. Helens, but breakfast at Plymouth Pub may stick to your ribs. Also, the “everything” avocado toast is even more everything with a strawberry lemonade mimosa.
At the heart of every religion is a similar yearn for peace and kindness. In the hills above Scappoose, the Buddhist Vedanta Society of Portland welcomes people (but not pets) to hike for free among reminders of that spiritual commonality.
Like pearls in a necklace, simple shrines dedicated to various faiths and beliefs—among them Christianity, Hinduism and even Native American—are spaced along forested paths at the retreat. On some weekends, there’s also yoga.
Formed from rich sediment, Sauvie Island—the largest island in the Columbia River system—is a place you can grow darn near anything. That agricultural vibrancy isn’t a secret, however, and come fall, its pumpkin patches, corn mazes and produce stands can feel like a feeding frenzy. Don’t let that scare you—and hopefully there’s room in the trunk for something gourdeous.
But first, the sprawling island—named after a French Canadian who ran a dairy in the 1830s—beckons. Grab an island-wide parking pass for $10, and maybe spread a picnic blanket in the historic apple orchard at the restored Bybee Howell House, built in 1855.
On the island’s northern end, which is marshy and can sometimes be like a Club Med for mosquitoes, a seven-mile out-and-back hike takes you and your bug repellent past cottonwoods and birds to 25-foot-high Warrior Rock Lighthouse, Oregon’s shortest lighthouse. The warriors that gave Warrior Rock its name were Chinooks in canoes in what was ultimately a peaceful 1792 encounter with European explorers.
Remember the spooky aliens from St. Helens?
It’s perhaps no coincidence that at Columbia River-facing Collins Beach, where clothing is optional, you can see a graffiti-adorned UFO tucked in the trees. One of Oregon’s weirder landmarks, it’s actually an experimental boat that ran aground in 1996.
Several Sauvie farms offer a hearty harvest experience, but only one of them also sells a mac-and-cheese burger and boasts the state’s largest corn maze. That would be The Pumpkin Patch, where you can also grab java at Pumpkin Perk. (Yes, unsurprisingly, they always have pumpkin spice.)
Depending on the day, you can sign up (far in advance) for farm-to-table dinners at nearby Topaz Farm, which also has its own robust autumnal celebration, store and bakery. Stock up on produce, visit with goats, grab pumpkins, and quaff beer and cider.
Then relax outside in their giant red Adirondack chair, and toast the happy vibe that comes with a surprising weekend getaway, well spent.
ST. HELENS, VERNONIA + SAUVIE ISLAND, OREGON
Big River Taproom
Black Iron Grill
Blue House Café
The Pumpkin Patch
Best Western Oak Meadows Inn
Scappoose Creek Inn
Barlow Bikes & Boards
Columbia Botanical Garden
Crown Z Trail
Next Adventure at Scappoose Bay
River City Speedway
Warrior Rock Lighthouse Trail