Cape Disappointment State Park
Ignore the name—Cape Disappointment State Park (360/642-3078, www.parks.wa.gov) is anything but a letdown. Arguably the most scenic state park in Washington, this 1,882-acre recreational retreat offers dramatic vistas across the mouth of the Columbia River, old-growth forests, incredible fishing, century-old military fortifications, historic lighthouses, and an impressive museum dedicated to Lewis and Clark.
This is the spot where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark stood in November of 1805, finally having “reached the great Pacific Ocean which we been so long anxious to See.” Because game proved scarce and this side of the Columbia lacked protection from winter storms, they crossed the river to build a winter camp called Fort Clatsop near present-day Astoria, Oregon.
The fascinating museum at Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center (360/642-3029, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily) honors the famous duo and is one of the must-see places on Long Beach Peninsula. The interpretive center has enormous windows with expansive views of Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, the Columbia River, and the mighty Pacific.
Tiny Waikiki Beach is a favorite local spot for picnics and swimming in the summer (no lifeguard is present). The beach received its name when a Hawaiian sailor’s body washed ashore here after his ship was wrecked in a failed attempt to cross the Columbia River bar in 1811. You can follow a trail uphill from Waikiki to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, and then on to Cape Disappointment Lighthouse.
You can see the mouth of the Columbia by turning right at the concession area and driving to the road’s end; park here and walk through the sand to the lookout atop North Jetty. Cape Disappointment Lighthouse is the Northwest’s oldest, built in 1856; follow the quarter-mile trail from the interpretive center or a steep quarter-mile path from the Coast Guard Station.
The commanding presence and strategic location of Cape Disappointment made it a vital fort location for the new Oregon Territory. The initial cannons arrived in 1862, and Fort Canby went on to protect the mouth of Columbia for 95 years. Many of the old bunkers and gun emplacements remain, making for interesting explorations.
North Head Lighthouse was built in 1898 and stands above Dead Man’s Hollow, named for the sailors of the ill-fated Vandelia, which sank here in 1853. The lighthouse is no longer used; today marine lanterns shine out instead from North Head. The lighthouse is a short walk through the trees from the upper parking lot, or a two-mile hike from McKenzie Head (just west of the campground). Lighthouse tours (360/642-3078, $1) are given daily during the summer.
To the south are the dunes and driftwood piles of Benson Beach (no vehicles allowed), with Long Beach pointing its finger northward. West Wind Trail leads a mile north from the lighthouse through the old-growth forests to Beards Hollow. From there you can continue along the beach all the way to the town of Long Beach, four miles away.
North Head is a favorite place to watch for migrating gray whales heading north March–May or south late December–early February. It’s also an awe-inspiring place during winter storms when waves pound hard against the rocks below.
For a taste of old-growth forests, take the 1.5-mile Coastal Forest Trail that begins at the boat ramp along Baker Bay. This is a very enjoyable loop hike.
Cape Disappointment State Park (888/226-7688, www.parks.wa.gov) is one of the most popular places to camp in Washington, welcoming tent ($22)and RV ($31 with full hookups) campers, plus groups of four or less seeking shelter in its permanent yurts ($50 up to six). If you need to clean up, there are coin-operated showers on premises. The campground—within a few yards of beautiful Benson Beach—is open all year.
© Ericka Chickowski from Moon Washington, 8th edition