But despite our less than enticing welcome, we extended our original two-day stay to five days.
Cape Disappointment Is Not Disappointing
What kept us here was our desire to bike the Discovery Trail along the coast (but not in the rain!), our interest in Lewis and Clark National Historic Park (this is where they ended their epic journey), and a craving for oysters in historic Oystertown, at the far northwestern end of the peninsula.
Cape Disappointment really deserves a more appealing name. The gloomy moniker was bestowed in 1788 by British explorer John Meares, who was peeved when he failed to find the mouth of the great river reputed to be just around the cape. “No such river exists,” he declared. Imagine his embarrassment when just a few years later, American merchant sea captain Robert Gray sailed across the bar into the river. Gray claimed the land for the U.S. and named the river Columbia, in honor of his ship.
Lewis and Clark National Historic Park
Here, on the banks of the Columbia River and on bluffs and beaches overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the story of Lewis and Clark comes to life. The 33-member Corps of Discovery arrived here in November 1805 after an arduous 4,000-mile journey from St. Louis to the Pacific.
Their journey was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, who said: “Find a route to the Pacific. While you’re at it, draw good maps, discover and document plants and animals, establish relationships with the Indian tribes you meet, and get there before anyone else can lay claim to it.” I’m paraphrasing here, but this was pretty much the essence of their mission.
We started our explorations at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, located high on a bluff in Cape Disappointment State Park. It kept us busy for several hours, as we delved into the exhibits of the Corps arduous journey, the many discoveries they made, and the accounts of their interactions with the native peoples who lived along the Columbia. It was a perfect way to spend a rainy day.
More Sites Of The Interpretive Park
The enormous replicas of Chinook canoes caught our attention at Middle Village/Station Camp. Just a few miles from Cape Disappointment, this marks the last camp the Corps made as they journeyed west. It was here that they decided where to spend the winter. Arriving in late fall, the Corps assumed it was a deserted Native American settlement. But in fact, it was a summer fishing village for the Chinook, who had called this area home for thousands of years.
The park at Middle Village/Station Camp focuses on the Chinook Indian Nation history, as well as the story of the Corps and the town of McGowan that was later founded here (hence, the church). We found the stories of the Chinook to be especially fascinating.
The river provided a natural water highway for the Chinook. They were far more skillful at navigating the unpredictable waters than the Corps. The abundance of the region, including salmon, shellfish, elk, berries, and tubers, sustained hundreds of villages along both sides of the river. Were it not for the food and other help provided by the Chinook and the Clatsop Indians on the opposite side of the river, the Corps would not have fared nearly as well.
With winter nipping at their heels, the Corps crossed the Columbia to set up camp, where elk were reputed to be plentiful. They built Fort Clatsop, named after the local Clatsop Indians, and spent the winter replenishing food supplies, making buckskin clothing, working on journals and maps, and preparing for the long journey home. When they left in the spring of 1806, they gave Fort Clatsop to Chief Coboway, who had been a helpful friend to the expedition.
Biking The Discovery Trail
This multi-use trail is about as perfect a bike path as you’ll ever find. The Discovery Trail covers 8.5 miles of gently rolling terrain, from Long Beach to the North Beach Lighthouse in Cape Disappointment State Park—that last mile or so to the lighthouse is an uphill climb, but worth it.
We had a blast cruising along the crest of the dunes, enjoying the ocean views and the interesting sculptures along the way commemorating the Lewis and Clark expedition. It’s a great 17-mile round-trip ride.
Visiting the Lighthouses
Cape Disappointment overlooks the Columbia River Bar, AKA “The Graveyard of the Pacific.” It’s such a treacherous area that it requires two lighthouses, both still in operation, and both within the state park.
Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, built in 1856, is perched on a cliff, a three-quarter mile uphill hike through layers of lush green forest. It’s a fading beauty in need of restoration and not open for tours, but nonetheless photogenic. And the views from the bluff are wonderful. North Head Lighthouse, built in 1898 on the northwestern spur of Cape Disappointment, is generally open for tours, but it’s currently closed while the park restores it to its original glory.
Exploring Long Beach
Well, it’s certainly not Astoria, but we found some interesting little towns to explore. Long Beach is the poster child for a touristy beach town, but the long stretch of sandy beach is beautiful and the boardwalk along the dunes is lovely for a stroll. (The boardwalk parallels part of the Discovery Trail, so you can explore many of the cool sculptures from here.)
We bypassed the shops along the way but couldn’t resist a quick visit to Marsh’s Free Museum. It’s stuffed full of a bizarre assortment of oddities, from taxidermy to vintage peep shows to antique arcade games.
Ilwaco: A Charming Fishing Village
The little fishing village of Ilwaco was much more to our liking. The harbor is picturesque, there’s a nice little farmers’ market on Saturdays, and we continued our seafood binge at Ole Bob’s Seafood Market—we came away with fresh mussels, cod, shrimp, and salmon. So good!
Other local meanderings included the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum, a very local, old- fashioned museum (free on Thursdays). There’s lots of intriguing stuff here, including a life jacket made of corks from 1904 that is way more interesting than the vest I have for kayaking. I’m going to start saving our wine bottle corks.
We also enjoyed happy hour at Salt Pub, overlooking the harbor, where we had a delicious North Head IPA (named after the lighthouse) from North Jetty Brewery. We were wishing we’d stopped by the brewery for a tasting of more of their offerings.
Oysterville was the final stop on our wish list, at the northwestern end of the peninsula. Built on the rich harvest of oysters from Willapa Bay (one tiny oyster brought as much as one silver dollar in San Francisco in the mid 1800’s!) the oyster boomtown is now a quiet village of well-preserved homes from the era. The smoked oysters were a bit on the tough side, but the smoked salmon dip from Oysterville Sea Farms was among the best we’ve had, and their deck overlooking Willapa Bay is lovely.
Where We Stayed
We had only two nights reserved at Cape Disappointment State Park and were unable to extend our reservation. But we found a wonderful spot to hang out for several more days just a few miles down the road at River’s End RV Park. We moved into a spacious site with blazing fast internet, and just across the river, Cape Disappointment lighthouse winked at us. (As an unexpected bonus, it was less expensive than the state park.) It was a great find, but unfortunately, the property has been sold and will no longer be an RV Park.
Cape Disappointment is a fine state park, though. We enjoyed our two nights there, even in the rain. The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, lighthouses, and hiking trails are all conveniently within the park. The campsites are arranged in spokes, offering plenty of privacy. We liked our site in Loop A, with the sound of the ocean lulling us to sleep at night. Full hookups, paved sites with picnic tables and fire pit, and absolutely no internet or cell connection whatsoever.