When you decide to visit a place called Cape Disappointment, you expect to be…disappointed? I mean, it says so right in its name. I didn’t read ahead when we visited this Washington State Park and instead decided to pop in just because I knew there was a lighthouse and because we were enjoying some time in nearby Long Beach. Why not? Fortunately, I can report zero disappointment. In fact, this is now my current ranking favorite state park.
Cape Disappointment is named for a man who couldn’t bother to ask for directions – English Captain John Meares, who visited the area in 1788, but couldn’t find the river’s entrance so he named it for his own personal disappointment. And the name stuck, despite the fact that this area has some of the most stunning scenery I’ve seen in the Northwest. I think it’s time to start a campaign to rename this place Cape Awesome. #teamcapeawesome
Later on, in 1792, American Captain Robert Gray did successfully find the river (at which point, I think he should have renamed it to something catchy like Cape Found It) and named said river Columbia after his ship. And in 1805, Lewis and Clark arrived at this very same Cape Disappointment after their 18-month journey from St. Louis, Missouri. That’s a long journey! And to be greeted by the views at this place and STILL keeping calling it Cape Disappointment? #idontgetit
But that’s not why you’re here. You’re here to find out what to do at this park. So without further ado…
Things to do at Cape Disappointment State Park
Hike or Bike
Whether you’re here with kids or without kids or on your own, the trails are a lot of fun to explore. On our drive in, we spotted some bikes on a super pretty trail through the forest. There are a total of eight miles of trails, some paved and some dirt, but all well maintained and gorgeous. First and foremost, make sure to take one of the trails to one of the two lighthouses. With these trails, you get a little bit of everything – forested trails, views, and a lighthouse to cap it all off! We visited North Head Lighthouse, which was going through some renovations so we couldn’t get too close, but close enough to snap some photos. Nearby are several buildings, including a little shop and the Lighthouse Keepers Residence, which is now a vacation rental, as well as several long abandoned military buildings and a creepy old water tower (the park used to be the site of Fort Canby) – so lots of good stuff to explore on foot all in one spot.
See the Lighthouses
There are two lighthouses at Cape Disappointment. Visit one, visit both, you can’t go wrong. If they are not under renovation, you can take tours and see the innerworkings, but small children may not be allowed to climb the steep stairs to the top. Cape Disappointment Lighthouse was completed in 1856, and North Head Lighthouse in 1898. Both were built to guide ships through the treacherous waters below where shifting sandbars and huge waves had a reputation for sinking many, many ships, so many that the area became known as the Graveyard of the Pacific.
Explore the Ruins
As the former site of Fort Canby, you’ll find ruins throughout the park that are gradually going back to nature and really cool to explore whether you’re a military history fan or not. If you love military history, the appeal is obvious. If you’re not a big fan, then don’t discount these ruins. Especially if your kids are old enough to climb and explore, ducking in and out of old buildings with ivy crawling up their walls or maybe a bird nest inside of them is just good fun. There is one such building to explore near North Head Lighthouse. Near the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center is an old gun battery, and another one is at the top of McKenzie Head.
Check out Stunning Views
This park is high up on cliffs and has some seriously jaw-dropping views. We drove from Long Beach and I didn’t really notice that we were climbing in elevation, but when we first entered the park, I noticed a viewpoint so I thought I’d hop out and take a picture. OMG! Equally awesome views were just about everywhere the trees opened up to reveal the ocean and waves far below. Bring your camera!
Visit the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center
We didn’t stop here because of bad timing and a restless toddler who probably wouldn’t really care to learn about the life and times of Lewis and Clark, but if your kids are a bit older, there are lots of interactive exhibits here. The focus is on the Corps of Discovery and their journey across the US, but you can also learn more about the two lighthouses at the park. During winter and spring, volunteers can help you spot migrating gray whales in the distance. On top of a Discover Pass, there’s also a small admission fee.
Get Out on the Water – Boating, Crabbing, Clamming, Fishing
Cape Disappointment has 135 feet of dock and a boat ramp on Baker Bay off the Columbia River. You’ll need the proper permits to launch a boat, but once you do, you can go crabbing and fishing in these waters. Clamming is also possible during open clamming times.
Like many state parks, you can camp at Cape Disappointment. The park has 137 standard sites, 50 full hookup sites, 18 partial hookup sites with water and electricity, 14 yurts all within walking distance of a beach, and 3 cabins…in short, there are lots of ways to stay overnight in a range of comfort levels (short of a luxurious hotel room, but if that’s what you seek, you’re probably not looking at camping anyway). Reservations are a good idea, though, as this is a popular park and a bit of a drive from most population hubs in the area.
Explore the Beach
Not all of Cape Disappointment is up on cliffs. There are several beaches where you can enjoy the shore, and one of the biggest perks is that these beaches don’t allow cars! (FYI, cars can go on the beach in Long Beach. They mostly congregate near the approaches, but still…if you have kids it can be just one more thing to think about). Benson Beach is great for clam digging or a seaside hike. Waikiki Beach is fun for building a sandcastle, walking along the shore, or catching a concern during warmer months. Expect wilder beaches here than at Long Beach or other beach towns.