A Visitor’s Guide to Cape Disappointment State Park

Welcome to Pacific Northwest paradise. You’re about to be one happy camper. Cape Disappointment State Park consists of nearly 2,000 acres of protected old-growth forest, lakes, freshwater, and saltwater marshes pressed against the vast blue Pacific Ocean. 

A coastline dotted with picturesque lighthouses, meandering hiking paths with historic significance, and endless opportunities for recreation means it’s the perfect place for a family adventure or romantic day trip from your Long Beach vacation home rental. One of the most historic of Washington’s state parks, it is excellent for a thrilling natural history experience and is a must to add to your Long Beach itinerary

Let’s dig into what makes this incredible little park a great year-round holiday destination.

About Cape Disappointment State Park

Where Does the Name Come From?

Cape Disappointment was first dubbed disappointing by Captain John Meares, a fur trader circa 1788, who thought the vast waters of the bay were actually the mouth of the Columbia River. It’s actually just southwest of this point. 

The park is also nicknamed the “Graveyard of the Pacific” due to the treacherous shipwrecks that have occurred in its seemingly tranquil waters.

A Cape By Another Name

The first recorded sighting of Cape Disappointment State Park was far earlier and by Spanish explorer Bruno Heceta in 1775. Heceta anointed the cape with the name “Cape San Roque.”

A Cape and Fort Rolled into One

Cape Disappointment is also known as Fort Canby State Park. After the fort of the same name was erected in 1875, the area was renamed Fort Canby and then renamed back to Cape Disappointment in the 1950s when the military fort was officially decommissioned.

The Last Stop for Lewis and Clark

The park’s real claim to fame is that it marked the end of the Lewis & Clark expedition across America in the year 1805. From here, Clark gazed upon the Pacific Ocean and recorded that they were, “beholding with astonishment the high waves dashing against the rocks and this immense ocean.”

A Strategic Position

During the Civil War, many military battlements were created at this strategic point to fend off Confederate soldiers. One such fort was Fort Canby. Many of these military relics are popular destinations with history buffs today.

The Best Time To Visit Cape Disappointment State Park

The best time to visit the park is summer or fall. This is when the weather is the most comfortable, and most of the attractions in the area are open for business.

The western coast of Washington is known for its sometimes moody gray weather one moment and beaming sunshine the next. So plan your visit for June through September for the best chance of reveling in the sun while you admire the Cape Disappointment lighthouse or swim at Waikiki Beach.

If you don’t care so much about sunshine, good news! The park is still perfect for visitors at any time of year. In fact, the wintertime is excellent for paying a visit to the Lewis and Clark interpretive center and diving into the region’s extensive history.

Getting to Cape Disappointment State Park

Just a smidge southwest of Ilwaco and its iconic Fort Columbia, Cape Disappointment State Park is cradled at the confluence of Oregon and Washington State. It’s an easy 10 minutes drive south of Long Beach, or a half an hours drive north of Astoria, Oregon, along scenic Route 1. 

Pro Tip: You will need a Discover Pass to visit the park. You can purchase a day pass or annual Discover Pass ahead of time online. 

Things to do in Cape Disappointment State Park

While this is not everything there is to do in Cape Disappointment State Park, it should give you a good idea of what to expect during your visit.

1. Visit the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center

Photo Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Combining the Corps of Discovery and Native American history, this impressive little information center is well worth a visit, even if you think you already know all the details of Lewis and Clark’s famous cross-country expedition.

2. Photograph the North Head Lighthouse

Photo Credit: Jonathan Miske via Flickr CC2.0

Overlooking the entirety of Benson Beach, the mouth of the Columbia River, and the Pacific Ocean is one of the most picturesque viewpoints in Cape Disappointment. Come see inside the operational lighthouse on a short tour from 11 a.m. to 3  p.m. from May to September.

There are quite a few other scenic lighthouses to enjoy in the area as well, like Cape Disappointment Lighthouse overlooking Baker Bay.

3. Celebrate the Chinook People with the Artwork of Maya Lin

Photo Credit: Baiterek Media

From the woman who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. are these odes to the stories and songs of the Chinook people. Her works are scattered throughout the park, and you can locate them by picking up a park map at the visitor’s center.

4. Swim at the Placid Waikiki Beach

Waikiki Beach is one of the calmer and more tucked-away inlets within the bay. It can be a great place to swim, but keep a watch out for riptides.

5. Go Hiking in Cape Disappointment State Park

Photo Credit: daryak

Follow in Lewis and Clark’s Footsteps by trekking up to Bells’s Overlook, where they first spotted the Pacific. Or, if you’re up for more of an adventure, you slip down to Dead Man’s Cove (or just enjoy the vista) while on the Cape Disappointment Trail. North Head Trail or the Discovery Trail are definite favorites.

Head to AllTrails to see all the best hiking routes in the area.

6. Bike to Long Beach

Photo Credit: Stephen Mark Dunmore

Alongside the miles of hiking trails are miles of biking trails! This flat coastal landscape makes for the perfect family-friendly ride.

Stop in at Sweet Phees for a midday ice cream scoop to cool off in Long Beach!

7. Surf at the North Jetty

Photo Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Climb among the ocean-drenched rocky shoreline and watch the morning surfers or grab a rental in Long Beach and join them! The North Jetty is yet another great beach to spice up your day at Cape Disappointment State Park.

8. Pay a Visit to Mckenzie Head

Named after a fur trader, this lush area has abundant stunning vistas and wildlife. Enjoy the lagoon, watch the surf crash at North Jetty, and explore world war ii era military bunkers. This is a great place to stretch your legs for an afternoon in the park.

9. Comb through the Tidelands

Photo Credit: SNC Art and More

This is an active way to spend an early morning on one of the many inlets within the park or on the long stretch of sand that is Long Beach. If it’s in season— you can even dig for razor clams! Just be sure to check the local clamming regulations before you dig.

10. Bird and Wildlife Watch

Photo Credit: Emily Marie Wilson

If history, art, and beaches aren’t cutting it for you, there is always nature itself. While Olympic National Park gets all the peninsular fame when it comes to wildlife— the sea life and bird life in Cape Disappointment are flourishing. You can spot winter wren, red crossbills, and fox swallows, as well as shy deer and sometimes bears along the less popular hiking paths. 

During December and January, the great Grey Whale migration passes through these cold waters, and lucky visitors can spot the sea mammals from the North Head cliff viewing point.

Pro Tip: Cape Disappointment State Park is brimming with picnic tables, boat ramps, restrooms, and various water sports rentals to help you more comfortably explore the surrounding nature.

Explore Cape Disappointment State Park

The Long Beach Peninsula area has so much to offer, including this extraordinarily scenic state park. From the historical Clark Expedition trails weaving through the old-growth forests to the nearby Leadbetter Point State Park, known for its migratory bird watching — the small region of the PNW packs quite a punch, both in history and the scenery. Make sure that you give yourself enough time to enjoy all the area has to offer before returning to your cozy seaside house rental because Cape Disappointment State Park never disappoints.

Featured Image Credit: Vladimir Payusov