Squirrel Bridges, Smalls Towns and a Mount St. Helens Side Trip
Washington State Route 4 leaves the Columbia east of Stella, skirting sluggish sloughs and lush pastureland. Suburban sprawl marks the outskirts of Longview.
Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery camped at the mouth of the Cowlitz River south of here in 1805. Homesteading started in 1849, and a community named Monticello sprang up between the Cowlitz and Columbia. The Monticello Convention settlers met here in 1852 to petition Congress for the creation of a separate territory north of the Columbia River.
Their wish was granted the following year when Washington was established as a separate territory from Oregon. This act also made Monticello seat of the newly created Cowlitz County, but the flood-prone settlement was abandoned in 1867 and the county seat moved upstream to higher ground at Kelso.
Longview became one of the largest planned cities in the country, a curving grid of streets interspersed with open space and parks reminiscent of cities of much larger size. Turn off Highway 4 onto Nichols Boulevard and Lake Sacajawea Park appears on your left. Within its 120 acres are grassy lawns, groves of trees, specialty gardens, an arboretum and 52-acre Lake Sacajawea, a former oxbow of the Cowlitz River. Trout, bass, perch, carp and catfish inhabit the lake and fishing is allowed year-round (except for grass carp). The elegant Old West Side Historic District borders the park on the east.
Modern Longview was founded in 1923 by timber entrepreneur R.A. Long, who selected this riverside site for a deepwater port and forest products complex. For an impression of its planned character, turn left on Washington Way. R.A. Long Park sits in the center of a circuitous traffic plaza at Olympia Way and Washington Way. This roundabout setup is unique in the Pacific Northwest. The grand streets lined with stately maples emanating from the hub are evocative of European capitals. The plaza is flanked by many of the city’s earliest buildings, most erected in the Georgian style, including the 1926 Longview Public Library and the 1923 Monticello Hotel building.
Just north of the park, the Nutty Narrows Bridge spans Olympia Way. Said to be the world’s first such crossing for squirrels, it was built by local resident Amos Peters in 1963 to provide the critters with safe passage across the busy thoroughfare. The original maple trees supporting the span perished to disease in 2005, but the bridge was relocated to its present spot near the Monticello Convention Site Park. Longview now has a half-dozen similar structures lending credence to its moniker, “Squirrel Bridge Capital of the World.”
Longview’s industrial district lines the Columbia River, where large factories process aluminum, chemicals and forest products. This is Washington’s third largest port and oceangoing ships carry the region’s products throughout the world.
Highway 4 bridges the Cowlitz River and Kelso nestles on its east shore. The stream is noted for its winter run of smelt, a tasty, small silver fish. Salmon, steelhead and sturgeon are also caught. Pioneer settlement dates back to 1847, and Kelso soon became a fishing, lumbering and trading center, capitalizing on its location near the confluence of the Cowlitz, Coweeman and Columbia rivers. The Three Rivers Mall adjacent to Interstate 5 is named after this convergence.
The old business district facing the Cowlitz contains a number of interesting buildings, including the 1912 train station that now serves Amtrak’s Cascades and Coast Starlight trains as the Kelso Multimodal Transportation Center. The Cowlitz County Historical Museum chronicles the area’s development.
Ten miles north on Interstate 5 is Castle Rock. The town takes its name from a local landmark for early river navigation. The first settlers arrived in the 1840s. A sawmill opened in 1875, specializing in cedar shingles, a new product made from the local stands of western red cedar.
Side Trip — Mount St. Helens
Castle Rock is also one of the principal gateways to Mount St. Helens, the most recently active volcano in the Lower 48. Spirit Lake Memorial Highway (Washington State Route 504) leads 52 miles east to spectacular overlooks in Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
During the winter months (late November through March) snow accumulates on the upper reaches of this road and the Johnston Ridge Observatory and visitor center at road’s end are closed in winter and early spring.
The Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Visitor Center, 6 miles east of Castle Rock on S.R. 504, is a great place to obtain information on access and recreation in and around the volcano. The center features exhibits of area natural history and screens a video of the 1980 eruption. Keep in mind, Highway 504 ends at Johnston Ridge – it’s another 50 miles back to Interstate 5. Allow two hours for the round-trip drive alone
Vader, Ryderwood and Winlock
From Castle Rock, Interstate 5 continues north through low hills, bypassing small towns dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Vader, 3 miles southwest of Exit 60, had a booming forest products industry sustaining a population of 5,000 at the turn of the 20th century. Six miles farther along Washington State Route 506 is Ryderwood, a retirement community occupying a former logging company town established in the 1920s.
Winlock nestles amidst wooded foothills 3 miles west of I-5 Exit 63. Although it’s on the main railroad line, the town has the air of a quiet backwater, bypassed by the Pacific Highway (old U.S. Route 99) and I-5. The World’s Largest Egg, a plastic and wire mesh monument to Winlock’s former role as a poultry raising center, is located beside the railroad tracks just north of downtown. You can still see the old poultry sheds along the Winlock-Vader Road south of town.
The freeway glides down to the Chehalis River Valley farmlands south of Chehalis, completing our Willapa Loop Auto Tour.
– Written by John King. Updated by Updated by Jim Hammerand in December 2020
– Top Image of Chehalis River near Montesano by John Callery/Getty Images.