There’s a photographic wonderland in the Pacific Northwest that everyone should visit if they have the opportunity: Fort Stevens State Park, which sits at the furthest northwest corner of Oregon where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. It’s about a 25 minute drive west of Astoria. There are many great picture opportunities at this historic location. If it’s your first visit, you might not know what you’ll find or where to begin—this article is intended to be a guide, so be sure to bookmark this if you think you might go.
Let’s take a look at what you’ll find at this incredible apex of Oregon!
Peter Iredale Shipwreck
Probably the most famous and most photographed landmark is the Peter Iredale shipwreck. This ship was a four-mast barque sailing vessel made of steel that, in 1906, was enroute to Portland from Santa Cruz, Mexico, with a load of rocks. High winds pushed the ship off course, and it ran aground at high tide near the Fort Stevens military base. Nobody was hurt, and for whatever reason the ship was left abandoned. What’s left of the ship can still be seen to this day, and is now an iconic picture location.
There are basically two times to photograph the Peter Iredale shipwreck: higher-tides and lower-tides. At higher-tides, the boat is partially covered in water and the waves crash into the metal remains. It’s less accessible and more photographically limited at high-tide than low-tide, and you’ll definitely want a telephoto lens, but it’s still worthwhile to capture some images. You can use the grassy sand-bluffs to frame the ship. At low-tide, you can walk right up to the ship—heck, you can drive right up to the ship! It’s most ideal if you can catch the shipwreck at low-tide and at sunset (this tide chart might be helpful), and a wide-angle lens will be your friend. Most likely you won’t be the only one at the boat, and it takes some patience to not get other people in your images (or yourself in their pictures).
Finding the shipwreck is super easy. Enter the park on the Peter Iredale Road and follow the well-marked signs (Google Maps). The parking lot is not far at all from the shipwreck, so it’s easily accessible. At low-tide you can drive right onto the beach (I suggest 4-wheel-drive), which makes it even more accessible.
Fort Stevens Military Base
Fort Stevens State Park has an intriguing past—if you are a military history buff, this is a must-see place! Fort Stevens was an active military instillation from 1863 to 1947. On June 21, 1942, a Japanese submarine fired 17 shells at the base. While several of the shells hit Fort Stevens, aside from several severed power lines and some damage to a baseball diamond, they didn’t do any major destruction and nobody was hurt. This was the only attack on the 48-contiguous states during World War II.
There are a lot of old military buildings in various conditions within the state park—about 25 structures, some of which are massive—and many of these are open to the public. It could be an all-day or even multi-day event to explore them all, or, if you’re not all that interested, can be briefly experienced within less than an hour. There are three sites: Fort Stevens Historic Area (Google Maps), Observation Pillbox (Google Maps), and Battery Russell (Google Maps). The Fort Stevens Historic Area is where most of the buildings are located plus the visitor’s center. The Observation Pillbox is accessible via hiking trails. Battery Russell is located not far from the Peter Iredale shipwreck, and can be easily explored right before or just after seeing the old boat.
For photography, wide-angle lenses are probably your best bet, and a large aperture option is a good idea. Consider bringing a tripod for shooting in the dark. Those interested in military history or abandoned buildings will find Fort Stevens State Park to be a treasure-trove of photographic opportunities!
There’s about four miles of sandy beach along the Pacific Ocean within Fort Stevens State Park. There’s also additional beach access on the Columbia River side of the park, which is interesting, too—especially if you want to see large ships coming and going—but the vast ocean with its lengthy sandy-beach is the real star.
At the south end is Strawberry Knoll (Google Maps), which is a good place for 4×4 vehicles to access the beach, but for everyone else will require a short hike to the ocean, and there’s limited parking. The easiest beach access is probably at the Peter Iredale shipwreck (Google Maps), which has more parking, but is also the most visited site. As you drive north on Jetty Road, Lot A (Google Maps) has easy beach access and plenty of parking, Lot B (Google Maps) has plenty of parking but it is a short hike to beach, Lot C (Google Maps) has an observation tower, a lot of rocks, a longer hike to the beach, and tons of parking, and Lot D (Google Maps) has plenty of easy beach access and parking, but technically this is the Columbia River side, and the water will be a lot more calm. Any of these locations can be good for photography.
I recommend having both telephoto and wide-angle lenses at your disposal. High-tide and low-tide can be interesting, and sunrise, midday, and sunset all offer interesting light. There’s no right or wrong time to go, and visiting at different times and during different conditions will give you vastly different photographic opportunities. I think one could spend days, weeks, or even months photographing the beaches at Fort Stevens and not run out of inspiration.
There are miles of hiking trails, thick forests, camping, ponds, lakes, and streams within Fort Stevens State Park. There’s abundant wildlife, including deer, elk, sea lions, bald eagles, heron, puffins, and occasionally gray whales off the coast. No matter where you are in the park, there are picture opportunities literally everywhere! The landscape is just incredible, and surprisingly varied. It might be easy to overlook all of this in-between the beach, shipwreck, and abandoned base, but don’t! Keep your eyes open, your adventurous spirit eager, and your camera ready, and you’re sure to capture some amazing yet unexpected pictures.
If you have the time and energy, the Fort Stevens/Jetty Loop/Ridge Loop Trail is great—mostly paved and fairly easy, but at nine-miles is a bit long (you don’t have to cover the whole thing). Coffenbury Lake (Google Maps) is worthwhile, and somewhat accessible from the Battery Russell parking lot.
If you are a wildlife photographer, you’ll definitely want to keep your long-telephoto lens handy. If you are a landscape photographer, wide-angle lenses will often be your best bet. Having a couple cameras, one with a telephoto lens and one with a wide-angle, or perhaps a good zoom lens, is a solid strategy.
Fort Stevens State Park is one of the most spectacular locations in northwest Oregon! It is a worthwhile photographic excursion that can be experienced in a day, but if you have more time to spend in the park you will surely be rewarded for it. Some parts of the park (Coffenbury Lake and Fort Stevens Historic Area) require a daily self-pay $5 parking fee per vehicle, and camping isn’t free, but otherwise the other parts of the park don’t have any fee to access.
I used three cameras to capture these pictures: Fujifilm X-E4, Fujifilm X100V, and iPhone 11. On the Fujifilm cameras I used various Film Simulation Recipes, and on my iPhone I used the RitchieCam app. All of the pictures in this article are unedited (aside from minor straightening and cropping, they’re straight-out-of-camera images), which means that I didn’t spend hours manipulating them in software. This is a great way to save time and make photography even more enjoyable. Capturing photographs that don’t require any post-processing is a wonderful way to streamline your workflow and simplify your photographic life. When traveling, where you’re making tons of exposures and opportunities to post-process those pictures are limited, things that save you time can make a huge difference. If you own a Fujifilm camera, I invite you to try Film Simulation Recipes (check out the App!) on your next photography outing. If you own an iPhone, download the RitchieCam camera app for free today!