We’re making up for all those times we didn’t pay attention in history class while still providing our kids with a few hours of entertainment with a visit to Fort Vancouver. Once the center of the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest and curent home to a world-class archeology collection, this fort-turned living history center will transport your back to the 1860s and give you an interactive look at our local history. For Vancouver also hosts one of the most epic July 4th celebrations ever, so be sure to mark your calendars for the upcoming festivities. With a wealth of playgrounds, air museums, and other outdoor adventures for intrepid kids, a day trip to Fort Vancouver is a must-do summer activity.
Make the quick trek north over the Columbia River and check out Fort Vancouver. Pronto! Open every day of the week, Fort Vancouver is a place to explore, discover, wander and attempt to comprehend; there is so much to see and do. Living history events, educational activities, outdoor days, interactive exhibits and costume programs abound. The kidlets will be in awe and incredibly inspired. And you’ll be learning right alongside ‘em. It’s also a gorgeous locale for a bike ride, picnic, or for a lay-in-the-grass and cloud gaze kinda adventure. Better yet – watch the planes flying overhead as they prepare to land at Pearson Airfield.
Originally an outpost of the British Army and the Hudson Bay Company, this fort became the commercial enterprise of the Pacific Northwest and the center of fur trading for our area. In 1849 the US Army built a post close by, also called Fort Vancouver for years, and is now referred to as the Vancouver Barracks. The area became part of the National Parks Service in 1948 to conserve and protect the heritage found within.
Connect to the Past
The reconstructed Fort itself includes furnished buildings and exhibits ($3 entrance fee for 16s and up). On any given day you may encounter volunteers dressed in period clothing, take in a film at the visitor’s center or enjoy the grounds and sights at your own pace via the audio tour. To get even more in depth background, grab a Junior Ranger booklet also available for free at the Visitor’s Center. Full of facts and info for kiddos about being a trapper, blacksmith, carpenter, baker, or other employee of Fort Vancouver back in the day, this booklet gives some depth to what life was like at that time.
Hold the Fort
Fort Vancouver has tons to offer kiddos of all ages. A new playground is right behind the visitor’s center and amazingly gorgeous trails (perfect for young cyclists) abound. One must see is the fabulous Land Bridge, connecting the Fort’s grounds to the super-scenic Columbia River footpaths. This fantastic architectural and culturally directed bridge is something to behold with your own little eyes. It’s a shout out to all the indigenous people Lewis and Clark experienced on their expedition and it is pedestrian only (bikes are a-ok).
One of the first things the Brits with the HBC did upon arrival was to plant a garden familiar to their homeland in hopes of helping the staff feel a little less homesick. Today, the English Garden is a popular scene of family photos and is a perfect spot for a snack or a picnic. Today many of the same flowers and vegetables are planted in the Fort’s gardens and are maintained by energetic volunteers. Watching the small planes land at Pearson Airfield is also groovy from this vantage point.
Not That Vancouver
The whole Fort Vancouver National Park area is destination-worthy as it is pretty and tranquil. It is also a big part of Vancouver’s community. Fort Vancouver is involved in the Vancouver USA marathon, is a stop on the grand Canoe Journeys made annually by local tribes, and is located right next to Pearson Air Museum. Fort Vancouver will be hosting a 97th birthday party for our National Park Service on Sunday, August 25th and is a regular destination for joggers, walkers, cyclists and outdoor enthusiasts of many types. They also host museum open houses, archaeological talks, night-time lantern walks, and day camps and overnights for bigger kids, too.
Fort Vancouver also rocks two hands-on programs for the junior historians in your household. The Youth Volunteer-In-Parks program for ages 9 and up provides a first-hand glimpse into life in the 19th century. The Kids Dig program for ages 8-12 offers a stellar hands-on experience at archaeology. The kids will literally dig this fantastic introduction! Working as teams they will dig, screen, make notes, and record their findings.
As American as Apple Pie
Possibly the most exciting of all their events is their Fourth of July extravaganza each summer. This is something to do at least once with your team (and once you do, you’ll likely make it back year after year). It is a full day of merriment and family-friendly action while also very pretty and historically rich. Plus the area’s BEST fireworks – over Pearson Air Museum – are on view and you’re in the most ideal location to oooh and aaaahh. Fab!
The Fort is open starting at 8:00 am on the Fourth of July and going early makes sense as this is a super-popular way to celebrate Independence Day. Families are hooked up with a full day of awesomeness like hands-on demonstrations and living history events, gunny sac races, four stages of live music (starting at noon), food vendors galore, and celebrations of life in the 1860s. The Kids Patriotic Parade starts at 4:00 and rolls right through the park grounds. Get your history buffs there early so they can decorate themselves in red, white and blue. SO fun! Admission to Pearson Air Museum (walking distance from the visitors center and prime viewing area) is $5 for the whole family that day as well. Clearly your day will be action packed and delightful. Bring a picnic, chairs, blankets and sunscreen and make an amazing day of history and learning together as you celebrate the birthday of the USA. Fireworks blast off at 10:00 pm.
Things to Know: The Rest is History
Fort Vancouver’s Visitor Center is open 9:00 am – 5:00 pm Monday through Saturday and 10:00 am – 5:00 pm on Sundays. The Reconstructed Fort is open Monday – Saturday 9:00 am – 5:00 pm and Sundays from 12:00 pm – 5:00 pm. An entrance fee of $3 for history mongers aged 16 and over is worth every penny.
Tacking on a visit to Pearson Air Museum is highly recommended for more awesomeness. Pearson Air Museum is open Wednesday – Saturday from 10:00 am – 5:00 pm and costs $5 per family. Seeing planes land is unavoidable while on the Fort’s grounds. Another way to enjoy the day!
On July 4th, their entrance fees remain the same. It is still a $3 fee for peeps ages 16 and over to enter the Reconstructed Fort. In addition an entrance fee $5 for adults in advance (and $7 at the gate on game day) general admission also holds. For those who want prime viewing a $50 ticket includes close parking and the best spots for firework displays. Junior history buffs under 12 are free.
The 4th of July event is both incredible and crowded. Go early and make a day of it in every sense of the word. Figure out your parking, plant your blankets and chairs as home base and go exploring from there. You will not be disappointed!
If you prefer to explore Fort Vancouver on a less-crowded day, take your pick of any good day for your family and uncover so much about how Vancouver and the entire Pacific Northwest evolved and developed into what they are today. This national treasure awaits right in our backyard. Lucky us!
Directions from I-5 and I205 can be found here and parking suggestions as well.
What did you see on your last visit to Fort Vancouver?
— Liz Overson
Photos courtesy of Fort Vancouver Facebook page, rosemarywashington.worpress.com, pdx.daddyforever.com, Susan Tedder and Liz Overson.