First Timer’s Guide to Cape Disappointment
TL:DR – Cape Disappointment is anything but disappointing!
Every year my family gets together for a big camp out at Cape Disappointment State Park here in Washington. Contrary to the name, it is a stunning place, packed with history, and full of drama. It is known as the Graveyard of the Pacific for good reason as well. Perched at the mouth of the Columbia River, dividing Washington and Oregon, the rush of the river out to the sea, with the competing tides from the Pacific create the most treacherous conditions that have sunk hundreds of ships over the centuries. And it is an absolutely beautiful place to camp, adventure, and somewhere I will never get tired of visiting. If you’re interested in off the beaten path adventures, this one needs to be top of your list in the PNW.
If you love American history, it doesn’t get much more epic than this being where Lewis and Clark found the Pacific! The park is entrenched in the history of Lewis and Clark, along with the maritime history, and Native American history of millenia past. The state park is wonderfully maintained by the Washington State Park system, and has camping for all kinds – from tent camping, to full hookup RV parking. OH! And you can even rent out the houses of the former lighthouse keepers! And yes, one of them is said to be haunted.
If you’re looking at an adventure there, be sure to make your reservations ahead of time!
What To Do at Cape Disappointment
Well, there is a big ass beach. So you can start there. Actually there are a couple. But there is also wartime battle fortresses to tour, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center to visit to learn all about the Corps of Discovery and native history, hikes to go on, and lighthouses to visit.
- Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center – A must see, and worth the admission. There is so much to know about the Corps of Discovery and how it plays into our American history. The center also does a good job of discussing the history of Native American history in the area and what a vital role they played.
- Visit the North Lighthouse – Hours of touring are limited, and little kids aren’t allowed inside, but the 15 minute tour is really cool. To see the full length of Benson beach, the mouth of the Columbia River, and 22 miles out to sea is really something!
- Hike – There are miles and miles of hiking trails to various viewpoints. To see where Lewis and Clark found the Pacific, there is a marked trail in the park to hike up and visit. The spot where they camped is also marked by a smaller trail.
- Visit Waikiki Beach – It’s a small beach near the front of the park, away from the larger waves from the ocean that is easy swimming for kids.
- Go to a concert – During the summer, there are Friday night concerts by local artists that can draw quite a crowd. Bring your lawn chair, blanket, and some drinks!
- Bike to Long Beach – There is an 8 mile paved trail from the park to Long Beach! It’s on my list for next year. You can also rent bikes and kid-haulers from a couple shops in Long Beach as well.
- Get Ice Cream – The local camp store, Cape D, has ice cream and a fun thing to do with the kids and walk to the beach.
- Visit the battlements – At the Interpretive Center, you can also tour the WWI/WWII battlements that protected the river and coast line from enemy infiltration. Very cool, and kinda creepy.
- There is literally so much more I can’t cover it! After four years, we are still NOT tired of this park!
- Learn more about the park on their website.
When To Visit Cape Disappointment
The peak season is going to be packed at the park, so plan out your trip even a year ahead of time to make reservation for camping so you can get the type of site you want. You an also go on shoulder season, and when it’s stormy, that’s when the photographers really go wild capturing the rogue waves crashing against the rocks near the lighthouse.
Since it does rain a lot I would recommend you either stay in an RV or rent a yurt in the shoulder season. In summer, tent camping is absolutely wonderful. But come prepared for both sun and rain.
If you’re more flexible, you can find last minute cancellations online or by phone to the park. But they may not be first-choice spots.
Another plus about this park is that in all the camp areas, there are running water, toilets, and showers available. They are cleaned a couple times a day, which is great. Some facilities are older and need of updating, but I’d rather have that than not!
And while this is a beach park, PLEASE be aware of the water. If you are not a strong swimmer, do not go in the water. Rip currents, strong tides and wind cause casualties every year. Do not mess around.
What To Do In Astoria, Oregon
Of course, there is more to do outside the park. With Astoria, Oregon about 40 minutes away, you can get cell service, and some killer beer and fish and chips. Along the way there are lots of historical viewpoints and spots to visit. But in Astoria there is so much to see and do.
- Visit Maritime Museum – We love this place, going back every year. If you’re interested in the history of the Columbia, or even if you’re not, it’s worth a visit. You can see displays about the Coast Guard installation that is the most dangerous in the country, to local history, wartime history, and fisheries and trade and how it all combines here in Astoria. You can even visit a couple of Coast Guard cutters in the outdoor portion of the museum.
- Walk the boardwalk – There are lots of eateries, shops, and breweries.
- Take the trolley – There is an old time trolley on limited hour operations that is hop on and hop off.
- Visit Buoy Beer – Our favorite place to grab a six pack to take back to camp! Grab lunch and a brew.
- Get Fish and Chips – Bowpicker is a famous fish and chip shack, that you need to line up for. Built in an actual fishing boat, it’s super popular for its tuna fish and chips.
And there is so much more! Check out the Travel Oregon site here
What To Do In Long Beach, Washington
It’s called Long Beach for a reason, and it takes pride in being the world’s longest continuous beach. It’s a summer town, and can get busy. About a 15 minute drive from Cape Disappointment, Long Beach has plenty to do, places to stay, and activities.
- Beachcomb – Obviously.
- Driving the beach – Driving on the beach is popular. It is considered a state highway, so mind your manners. And don’t get stuck. At the very end is another park! You can also get there by the road through town, but why would you?
- Fly Kites – It’s very popular for kite flying, and there are even festivals devoted to it here.
- Walk the Boardwalk – There are lots of kitschy shops to visit with travel knick knacks and more.
- Visit Dylan’s Cottage Bakery – My mom’s favorite is to get an eclair at Dylan’s right on the main drag through town.
- Rent a bike – Rent bikes and kid haulers to bike the trail back to Cape Disappointment, or just around town!
I absolutely love growing up and living in Washington state. We have so much to offer, and it is somewhere I never get tired of exploring. I hope that you will be inspired and get out somewhere new, too! If you have ever been here, or have other suggestions, please drop a comment below and let me know where to visit next!